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Dublin: 12°C Tuesday 11 May 2021

'I love working with him' - Leinster appreciating McQuilkin influence

The former Ireland international has made a major impact on his return to the eastern province.

WHEN LEINSTER PLAYERS get a text from Kurt McQuilkin, they’re always quick to reply.

The defence coach sends out a group message two or three times a week asking if players want to sign up for his ‘extras’ sessions at the province’s UCD gym.

With a maximum of eight places in each of those sessions, the texts almost immediately flood back in. First come, first served. McQuilkin has made Leinster love defence again.

Kurt McQuilkin McQuilkin has made a major impact at Leinster. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

The New Zealand native, who won five caps for Ireland as a centre, previously worked as defence coach with Leinster when they won the 2009 Heineken Cup under Michael Cheika.

A year later, McQuilkin departed back to New Zealand with his family, but Leinster always remained ingrained in his heart. When the eastern province came calling last summer, asking if the former Lansdowne FC captain would return, he was thrilled to accept the offer to come on board as Leo Cullen’s defence coach.

The results have been outstanding. Coming into Saturday’s Guinness Pro12 clash with Ulster, Leinster are easily the best defensive side in the league.

They’ve conceded just 21 tries and 241 points in 20 games so far, and their bitterly-disappointed reaction to giving up three tries to Edinburgh last time out spoke volumes.

The defensive grandstand late on against Munster earlier this month is among the defensive highlights of the season.

Leinster’s players have simply enjoyed having a dedicated defence coach, after ex-head coach Matt O’Connor had taken on that duty in recent seasons alongside his focus on the attack.

“We’ve not had a defensive coach in Leinster for the last while, so it’s great to have everyone on the same page,” says loosehead prop Jack McGrath.

“If there is a bit of difficulty with something, being able to go to him one-on-one and problem-solve with him and as a group is great. He’s brought in a few good things to bring the defence back to where it needed to be. When he was there before, Leinster were a formidable side in defence.”

Number eight Jamie Heaslip says he first worked with McQuilkin as a 15-year-old, then throughout his time in Leinster’s academy and all the way up to that Heineken Cup glory during the Cheika era.

Michael Cheika, Jonno Gibbes, Alan Gaffney and Kurt McQuilkin McQuilkin celebrates the 2009 Heineken Cup win with Cheika, Jono Gibbes and Alan Gaffney. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Ireland international thinks McQuilkin’s break from Leinster, during which he head coached the King Country Rams in New Zealand, allowed him to grow.

“He’s the same, but different,” says Heaslip of what’s changed. “He’s got some new drills, some new tricks, and I think the time away probably did him some good to go away and be able to look in and see maybe how Leinster’s game has changed without being in it.

“Sometimes when you’re in it, you get a different perspective. For him to come back after that time out, he’s been really excited and really energised. He’s taken serious pride in making sure our D is up there with the best of him.”

Much has been made of the inexperience of the backroom staff around Anthony Foley in Munster this season, but Cullen has been blessed to have someone like McQuilkin alongside him, bringing the mindset and focus players crave.

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“He’s a really positive guy with really good energy,” says McGrath. “That’s what you need. If your coach is negative towards you, you’re not going to want to go and seek out that help.

“He’s always positive and there’s always a silver lining with what he says to you on the improvements you need to make. I think that’s a really priceless thing for any coach to have.”

McQuilkin’s ‘extras’ sessions quickly became a pillar of life at Leinster after his return, with small groups of six to eight players gathering on the soft running-track area of the gym in UCD to carry out extremely technical work.

From minor tweaks to foot placement before the tackle, hand positioning and alignment of the head through the hit, to a whole range of other technical details, McQuilkin has made Leinster better defenders.

“It takes time and it’s just one of those things where you slow it down and then gradually speed it up as you go on,” says McGrath.

Kurt McQuilkin and Leo Cullen McQuilkin is in the first season of a two-year deal. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“The more repetitions you do of certain positions to tackle in, the more likely you are to do it in live play.”

Heaslip takes up the point, alluding to Leinster’s huge defensive shift late on against Munster as an example of the benefits of building up such technical quality.

“With that kind of stuff, when you’re tired and in the last 10 minutes of the game and someone is just battering your line, I always see people going back to what they know,” says Heaslip. “They go back to their habits.

“Kurt’s a big believer in that and he’s ingraining really good technical habits in us, so that when you’re absolutely wrecked and you’re on autopilot, that you’re making good decisions in D. You’re making those good technical decisions on how to tackle someone.”

There have been systematic shifts for Leinster under McQuilkin too, but the players continually go back to this technical work as the key to improvement. As with anything in rugby, as your defensive basics get better and better, the system becomes less and less important.

Bringing McQuilkin back into the picture has proved to be a stroke of genius from Leinster and the province’s squad are thrilled with his impact.

“I just love having a skills coach there for D, I love it,” says Heaslip. “I love working with him. I’ve a very good relationship with him and there’s no bullshit between the two of us.

“He’ll call me out and he’ll respect my honesty in terms of if something is not working for me personally and we have to tweak something. We’re able to have very frank discussions about my own personal D and the collective.”

If Cullen’s first season in charge of Leinster is to end with a Pro12 trophy, McQuilkin’s defence will have played a starring role.

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Murray Kinsella

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