ROB PENNEY IS the latest Kiwi to land the head coach job at an Irish province, meaning that three out of the four Irish provinces are now presided over by New Zealanders.
What does this say about the standard of coaches in Ireland, if anything?
Let us examine each province individually as circumstances differ greatly depending on your location.
Joe Schmidt has been an unequivocal success at Leinster, marrying a highly-intelligent and exciting brand of rugby with a winning mentality. There is no questioning his appointment, even from a purely Irish perspective, as he is doing as much to develop young Irish talent as anyone.
Schmidt is 80 minutes away from his second Heineken Cup in two years and his stock is most definitely on the rise. The challenge for Leinster will be holding onto him when others come calling. And they will come calling, you can be sure of that.
The Ulster scenario is less straight forward as an Irish coach has been effectively demoted to make way for Mark Anscombe. It is important to clarify here that the best man for the job should be awarded the role, regardless of their nationality. However, Brian McLaughlin has just led Ulster to the Heineken Cup final and has developed them into a very serious outfit.
David Humphries is a bright man who is very serious about progressing Ulster Rugby and he obviously feels that Mark Anscombe is the man to do just that. Nevertheless, you can’t help but be confused and slightly frustrated by this as here is an Irish coach performing his job incredibly well. Ulster have improved immeasurably over the last season, particularly in the Heineken Cup, making McLaughlin’s demotion all the more bizarre.
Anscombe has pedigree in developing youth talent and also as a technical forwards coach; these were obviously boxes that Humphries and co were looking to tick. His record with the All Blacks Under-20s is impressive but his ITM Cup record with Auckland (youth team) is less so, finishing fifth in 2009, fourth in 2010 and fifth again in 2011.
Anscombe may well turn out to be a shrewd appointment but shouldn’t McLaughlin have been given a chance given the upward curve the province are on under his guidance? I think so.
The departure of Tony McGahan from Munster left a void many presumed would be filled by Anthony Foley. The former Ireland number eight seemed a natural choice in many respects, given his technical prowess, allegiances to the province and the values they stand for. Indeed, Munster have tended to promote from within in past circumstances.
The common perception is that Foley will take up the mantle at some point and was potentially even offered it already. There is, of course, a distinct possibility that Foley will replace Rob Penney at the culmination of his relatively short two-year contract.
And what of Rob Penney? His background is similar to Anscombe’s in that he is a Kiwi who has experience is developing young talent and is a forwards coach by trade. This latter trait is a little bit curious given that Munster have a very capable forwards coach already in situ in Foley.
All things considered, you would suggest that Penney has been appointed to aid the growth of the youth talent at Munster and to help hone Anthony Foley’s skills until he is ready for the main job himself. This may be a little premature but it certainly feels like that.
In truth Anthony Foley is possibly the most promising prospect in Irish coaching, given his astuteness in regards to the game. Foley was a supremely intelligent player and has already acquitted himself extremely well on the coaching front at both Munster and Ireland. He is also a forwards specialist, which is hugely promising. Ireland don’t produce enough specialist coaches and even Declan Kidney could be classed as a manager in many respects, who brings in top quality coaches around him.
Edinburgh head coach Michael Bradley. Pic: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Looking further afield for Irish coaches, there are two who spring to mind immediately; Michael Bradley and Conor O’Shea.
Bradley’s star is currently on the rise, having guided Edinburgh to the semi final of the Heineken Cup, dismissing Toulouse along the way. The former Connacht coach is being heralded as the next Irish head honcho in some quarters but he would surely need to achieve something a bit more tangible before that happens?
Edinburgh’s form in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 this year has been awful, finishing second from bottom and three places below Connacht. This needs to be taken into account also. Although Bradley is doing some great things, I certainly wouldn’t be rushing into handing him the Irish job any time soon.
Conor O’Shea is another who is making good strides as his Harlequins side have topped the Premiership table this season. Play-offs are still to come of course but even finishing top is an achievement in itself. O’Shea is another who will be right in the mix for the Irish head job in years to come and rightly so.
To conclude, it is no harm having a foreign coach in charge of a province or indeed Ireland, if they are the right man for the job. However, there are very decent Irish coaches out there and they shouldn’t be overlooked.
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