'I really like the idea of my family having different experiences'

Former Munster assistant coach Ian Costello is enjoying his challenging task with Wasps.

GIVEN THAT LEINSTER are the most prolific attacking team in the Heineken Champions Cup, averaging 33.4 points and 4.6 tries per game this season, Wasps defence coach Ian Costello may have the toughest job of anyone in European rugby this week.

The former Munster assistant coach’s work is, of course, largely done by now and it’s the Wasps players who are tasked with implementing a plan to stifle Leinster’s attacking intent at the Ricoh Stadium today [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport].

Ross Neal and Ian Costello Costello, right, joined Wasps from Nottingham last summer. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Last time Wasps faced Leo Cullen’s team, at the RDS back in October, it didn’t end well for the Premiership side as they shipped eight tries in a 52-3 defeat.

“Your first game with a new club back in Ireland, to come out the wrong end of a 50-point defeat was hugely disappointing,” says Costello, who joined Wasps from Nottingham last summer.

Wasps learned the hard way in that game, particularly from having to make “80 minutes worth of tackles in that first 35 or 40 minutes” and not lifting the pressure valve from themselves, resulting in Leinster pulling well clear in the second half.

With another opportunity to take on Europe’s best team, this time at home in Coventry, the Premiership outfit are keen to make life much more difficult for the visitors.

In truth, it has been a difficult season so far for Dai Young’s team, who haven’t won in the Heineken Cup and sit sixth in the Premiership.

They did manage to end a five-game losing streak two weekends ago with a morale-boosting win at home to Northampton in the Premiership, before slipping to a narrow defeat away to Bath in Europe last weekend.

With key men Joe Launchbury and Dan Robson – both of whom start today as Elliot Daly also returns – back, the last fortnight has seen some of the gloom around Wasps lifting and their defence has made clear improvements.

“The Northampton game was our best 80 minutes defensively, no question,” says Costello, who also coaches Wasps’ exits. “We made one mistake for a first-phase try, which was an individual system error.

“But the things like the excitement, the energy, the body language, the intent, all those parts of the game that reflect where you are emotionally and how hard you’re willing to work for each other, it was by quite a distance the best we’ve had.

“To be honest, we’re really disappointed that it’s taken a long time to come together but the players have bought into the way we’re trying to do things.”

Ian Costello Costello was previously defence coach at Munster. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

Director of rugby Young hired Costello with creating a more holistic approach to Wasps’ game in mind, an intent to ensure the club’s players bring as much enthusiasm to defending as they have done in attack.

“The club’s DNA has been, for a long time, ‘We will score more tries than you,’ with a massive attacking focus – and rightly so, the club have been tremendous to watch over the last couple of years,” explains Costello.

“Dai has a very clear idea of where we want to go – that DNA needs to be high energy, high tempo, high intensity on both sides of the ball. We want to score tries, we’re excited to get the ball in our hands and also we’re excited to get the ball back when we’re defending.”

With 36 tries conceded in the Premiership and 22 in their five European games, the Wasps defence has come in for criticism this season and Costello says he has been grateful for Young’s support publicly and privately, the director of rugby stressing to him that time was required for everything to come together.

Indeed, Costello says the highly-experienced Young has remained calm and positive in all aspects throughout what was a difficult first half of the campaign for Wasps. 

“When less-experienced DORs and head coaches might have panicked or lost confidence, because of his experience and what he’s been through in the last 15 or 20 years, he kept us on the same path with a belief and confidence we would come out the other side.”

Costello, who worked as defence coach for Munster under Anthony Foley, says his coaching of this area of the game has developed in recent years, although not solely in terms of the technical and tactical elements.

A keen student of the game, Costello has soaked up everything he could from various influences since his days as UL Bohemians’ boss in the AIL and leading Munster A to British and Irish Cup success in 2012.

He visited the Hurricanes and Highlanders in New Zealand last summer, having previously spent time with Australian and South African clubs, while he recently had a stimulating day observing at England camp under Eddie Jones.

“I’ve been very fortunate to spend time with people who I’d consider very good defence coaches,” says Costello.

Ian Costello and Anthony Foley Anthony Foley played a key role in Costello's development. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Obviously, Axel first of all. Andy Farrell was in with us at Munster as a consultant, so I had that access for five or six months.

“Last summer, the Highlanders and Hurricanes, who were very excited both sides of the ball. John Plumtree was excellent to be around and talk to and spend time watching in action.

“You have who you are as a coach, your styles and philosophies, and that’s what stands someone apart as a coach. Then it’s the technical detail.

“Have I got different views than I had four years ago around defence? My philosophy is probably the same but it’s evolved to hopefully being a little bit more aggressive, with more clarity and more detail.

“The thing I really challenge though is how I communicate, how I coach players individually and collectively, how I present and get my message across, how I involve the players, how you use the intellectual property in the room.”

One of the interesting aspects of the Wasps defence this season is that their tackle percentage hasn’t been especially poor, standing at 87% in the Premiership and 85% in Europe.

But Costello explains that he uses different metrics to assess the performance of his defence.

“I don’t find that that tackle percentage correlates to the scoreboard as much as other stats or KPIs. I use stats to promote behaviours, mindsets, attitude.

“For example, the Northampton win was our highest number of double hits. 14% of our tackles were double hits.

“Double hits form the foundation of your most physical performances because it tells you about your mindset intent-wise but also how hard you’ve worked to get into position, how clearly you’ve spoken to each other so that one tackler is high, one is low.

“We also look at a dominant tackle percentage and try to have that in the double figures, whereas the previous average had been below that.

Leinsters  James Ryan Wasps had a tough evening against Leinster last time. Inpho / Billy Stickland Inpho / Billy Stickland / Billy Stickland

“Instead of looking at missed tackles now – and this is something we did at Munster – we look at critical missed tackles. Yes, you have missed tackles and you hold people accountable for that but we look very closely are what were critical missed tackles.

“Yes, you have to be in control but sometimes you’re forcing people back in for the hunt defender on the inside to clean up.

“We use one measure around positive work rate and one around negative work rate, just so it’s not clouded. Against Northampton, we had 16 in what we would have called high-end efforts and only three of what we would call unacceptable ones around work rate.”

Despite the clear challenges, Costello is enjoying his work in England, having “absolutely loved” his two years as head coach of Championship side Nottingham after moving there from Munster in 2016.

“There was huge uncertainty at that time in Munster, Rassie [Erasmus] was coming in and I would have been very aware that lots of coaches have people who they work with. Jacques [Nienaber] is obviously world-class and he’s Rassie’s right-hand man.

“We were advised to look at other options. The Nottingham one came about really quickly from interview to being offered the job.

“I always had it in my mind that Pro D2 or the Championship as a head coach would be a thing I’d love to do so that down the line, whether it’s six years or 16 years, at least I would have that head coaching experience on my CV.

“I hope it also makes me a much better assistant coach when you appreciate the role of the head coach, you can support them more. You’ve been in their shoes a little bit.”

Nottingham were “next level” in helping Costello and his family settle in quickly and happily, to such an extent that the city remains their home and he commutes the hour to and from Coventry.

The Championship was a proving ground for Costello as he showed his ability to get good results with a small squad and limited budget, helping to convince Young and Wasps that he was ready for the step up.

Ian Costello Wasps are confident that returning key players can lift their season. James Crombie / INPHO James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Though his passion for Munster remains undimmed, Costello is revelling in the opportunity.

“I really like the idea of my family having different experiences. My son has played a little bit of cricket and rugby here. My wife, Louise, is involved in things that maybe she wouldn’t have been at home, the same for myself.

“She has a five-year sabbatical as a teacher and we will go home in that period because she’s got the secure job. That’s just the reality when you coach.

“We’ll definitely go home but we have another three years after this year, at a minimum. I’m just going to go with it and try to enjoy it rather than focus on what happens next.”

Ahead of the final weekend of European pool games, Murray Kinsella, Andy Dunne and Gavan Casey look at what each of the provinces can expect, and who impressed last weekend:

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