Paul O’Connell feels Munster need to be mindful about the absence of any ‘locals’ on their backroom staff as they look to a new campaign with a new-look brains trust under Johann van Graan. The departures of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones — to be replaced with Graham Rowntree and Stephen Larkham — has utterly changed the complexion of the ‘team behind the team’ in Limerick.
Rowntree and Larkham are men with storied playing careers and impressive bodies of work on the sidelines but it means the province will be guided by men with no links to the province, or to Ireland at large, for the first time.
“Yeah, it would be a concern,” said O’Connell ahead of yesterday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open Pro-Am. “They had two very good guys and I hope the IRFU continue to invest in them and develop them and help them along their way.
“The IRFU are very good at coach development. Matt Wilkie, who works with a lot of coaches, is a very good guy. And I hope they continue to do that. It won’t do the lads any harm to go away and do something different and you’d love to see them come back to Munster in the long term more experienced.”
It’s not that O’Connell is spitting teeth at this turn of events. The former Munster captain knows all too well the vagaries of professional sport and his regard for Rowntree, who will be paying him a visit next month, and Larkham, who he knows only from afar, was obvious as he spoke. And there was an air of confidence as he mentioned van Graan who, he believes, will be well aware of the changed demographics and the need to plan long-term for some more local knowledge and flavour on the coaching roster.
“The line he uses is that they care deeply about the Crusaders because they are all Crusaders themselves and you also see that mindset with some of the decisions that Leo Cullen makes in Leinster. He really invests in the long-term because he’s a Leinster man and he wants to set the club up for the long-term future and it’s important to have local guys to do that.”
In an ideal world, O’Connell might have filled that breach. His time as assistant coach to Heyneke Meyer at Stade Francais ended recently after just a single season in Paris and he confirmed in Lahinch that the separation was down to a “different philosophy”.
Munster did not approach him after the realisation that Jones and Flannery were leaving but the 39-year made it plain that he was not ready for a role at Thomond Park, either in terms of his experience or the exposure that would come with a return to the scene of so many past glories.
“When you are only starting out you probably want to work somewhere you are going to learn and where you are under the radar a little bit. It’s different for different people.
“Learning to teach is the big thing. Anyone can have the rugby knowledge, it is the teaching is the hard part. That’s why the likes of Joe Schmidt and Stuart Lancasters of this world, former teachers, are probably so good at what they do.
“It’s very different from when you are playing or captaining in the middle of the group. You’re doing what they are doing on the field but when you are coaching you are standing on the sideline. For me it is taking a bit of getting used to.”
O’Connell’s language still betrays a sense of doubt as to whether coaching will be his long-term future but he is adamant that he has the ambition to give it another whirl after his short stints with the Ireland U20s and Stade — if not right away.
The immediate focus is on punditry duties with ITV in Japan followed by some travel to broaden the mind and his rugby knowledge. O’Gara, newly installed as head coach with La Rochelle, has shown how beneficial that can be.
“He seems to be looking at coaching a different way and developing and teaching people differently,” said his old teammate. “It would be great to see him do that in La Rochelle for a while and it would be great to see him back in Munster some day.”