Leo Cullen has questioned why there was no mention made of the coaching changes at other Irish provinces after Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa pointed to Stuart Lancaster’s arrival in Leinster as a potential cause of Ireland’s World Cup disappointment.
Twelve of the Irish matchday 23 that faced New Zealand in the World Cup quarter-final last week were from the reigning PRO14 champions, with eight from Munster and three from Ulster.
This split is a typical one over the past few years, with Cullen’s side — double PRO14 champions and 2018 Champions Cup winners — naturally dominating the national setup.
But it’s the impact of Lancaster, who arrived in Dublin in 2016 a year after leaving the England national team following their World Cup collapse, that has caused the two ex-Leinster captains to speak out.
Both believe the arrival of the Englishman, and his more expressive style of play, had an unintended negative consequence for the national team at the World Cup.
Nacewa, who retired after helping Leinster to a fourth European title last year, suggested the province’s style had a positive influence on Ireland last season, before Joe Schmidt returned to a more structured playing style.
“In the 2017/18 season once Leinster started playing an attacking brand of rugby and the majority of the Ireland squad was Leinster-based, they let a little bit of that Leinster flair infiltrate the Ireland camp,” Nacewa said in a Sky Sports podcast last week.
“Joe started to go away from his tried and trusted drills and introduced a bit of what we call ‘unstructured play’. That came into Ireland camp in training and in the Six Nations and they were throwing off-loads.
“There was continuity to their play. That got them all the way to the top of the world and an unbeaten year with all the trophies. Post that, I hear they actually went away from that and started to take it back out and went back to the conservative approach and that’s just shone through the whole World Cup and 2019.
“He went back to the tried and trusted of what worked for the last six years, and I just don’t think they were expressive enough.”
O’Driscoll, another ex-Leinster player who enjoyed great success under Schmidt for club and country, had similar thoughts on the impact of Lancaster’s coaching.
“I’ve been thinking about this — I wonder with Stuart Lancaster coming in [to Leinster] and his focus being very different to Joe’s, did that upset the apple cart a little bit?” said O’Driscoll on Off the Ball.
“Because he was very much about unstructured play rather than Joe’s focus around set-piece and did that cast a few doubts into the players’ minds as to what way they needed to train and what they needed to focus on? I wonder did that dynamic change things a little bit.
“You can’t stop a coach’s personal beliefs on how the game should be played. [For] Leinster players, you hear under Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, everything is about unstructured chaos and the launch plays are used to get into that unstructured play and that’s the vast majority of the game.
“Whereas Joe has been very much a set-piece orientated guy … They’re not as effective off broken-field play.”
Cullen claimed he had not fully read or heard the comments, but pointed to the number of coaching changes elsewhere in the Irish system and wondered why they were not mentioned.
“There are comparisons being made when coaches come in,” Cullen said. “At the World Cup, there were 14 Leinster players out there originally. Jack [Conan] left and Jordi [Murphy] came in.
“There are 12 Munster players.
“Why does nobody pick up the change of coaches in Munster? Did that have an effect?
“Or the change of coaches at Connacht? They’ve gone from Pat [Lam] to Kieran [Keane] to Andy [Friend].
“Ulster have gone from Les [Kiss] to Jono [Gibbes] to Dan [McFarland].
“It’s a bit of a narrow focus would be my overall observation.
“What about England? How many teams are represented in their group? What about New Zealand?
Meanwhile, Cullen has revealed that Seán Cronin is a doubt for the province’s Champions Cup opener next month.
Fergus McFadden, who suffered an elbow injury in training, is unlikely to make the European clash with Benetton on November 16, but Cronin has a “slightly better” chance of playing it. The Ireland hooker, who played twice in Japan, has had a scan on his neck and will be out of action for “the next few weeks”, according to a Leinster update.
The province’s international stars returned to their UCD base last week for medical checks following their heavy quarter-final loss to New Zealand in Tokyo, and some will get the chance to move on put it behind them with a trip to Galway in 11 days’ time.
Full-back Hugo Keenan picked up an ankle injury in Leinster’s 3-0 win over Zebre last Saturday and will be further assessed this week ahead of the visit of Dragons to the RDS on Friday night.
Ed Byrne (neck) and Ciarán Frawley (ankle) have both returned to training and will hope to be part of the Guinness PRO14 clash.