DONAL LENIHAN: Is this the man who is going to save Irish provincial rugby?

It may have its faults but the Guinness PRO12 has managed to hold the imagination of fans, across the Celtic nations at the very least, as it enters its version of Super Saturday in three days time.

The semi-final slots have now been whittled down to five with Scarlets and Ulster contending to join Glasgow, Connacht, and Leinster in the top four while an inspired late run from the Ospreys now leaves them as the major rival to Munster and possibly Edinburgh for that final Champions Cup qualification spot.

Even in Italy, with only a point separating Zebre and Treviso at the foot of the table, both of their sides have something tangible to play for as they fight to secure their place in the Champions Cup next season.

The fact that the two basement sides still have that possibility open to them represents a serious flaw in the system. 

Whatever about the merits of promoting the wellbeing of Italian rugby, it does appear bizarre that either side can still qualify for the top tier of European rugby on the back of a combined total of seven wins in the 42 league games contested between them to date this season.

Once again, the presence of Treviso in Munster’s pool guaranteed that two sides progressed to the Champions Cup quarter-final — Leicester and Stade Francais — even if Munster weren’t good enough to avail of it.

The 12 games played by Treviso in the Champions Cup to date has only produced one win, against Ospreys at home in a dead rubber last season, while Zebre have managed five victories from their 12 Challenge Cup games over the last two seasons. 

That evidence suggests the Challenge Cup presents the Italian sides with a better chance of competing on an equal footing and an opportunity to build confidence and a bit of momentum.

Surely requiring a side to finish in the top seven of a 12-team league offers sufficient incentive to make the Champions Cup. 

If you can’t manage that, then you don’t deserve to be in the premier European tournament. 

The time has come to earn their place on merit and the ring fencing of a slot for an Italian side should be done away with. 

That’s for another day however.

Right now, Munster’s win over Edinburgh last Friday night has kept their challenge for qualification alive. 

Despite the massive sigh of relief that was so palpable amongst the players and management in the immediate aftermath of the game, they must now repeat the dose against a better balanced and more dangerous side in Scarlets at Thomond Park next Saturday to achieve that goal.

The quality of Munster’s performance at Musgrave Park is irrelevant in so many ways as all that matters now is to win one more game. 

The province is about to undertake a seismic change over the summer with the introduction of a state-of-the-art training base at UL in Limerick, along with the arrival of a first ever director of rugby in Rassie Erasmus. 

That will shape the future and next Saturday’s game will dictate whether that embraces Champions or Challenge Cup rugby for Erasmus to negotiate.

With so much focus on the fallout from Munster’s less than satisfactory season and on their indigenous coaching ticket, Leinster’s management team, despite a shockingly inept Champions Cup campaign, were offered far more breathing space.

I would venture to suggest however that the man with ultimate responsibility for the line management of the provincial coaching teams, the IRFU’s performance director David Nucifora, has been keeping a very close watching brief at what is happening in Leinster.

It is well known that Nucifora was less than enamoured with the appointment of Leo Cullen as Leinster head coach after the departure of Matt O’Connor. 

While Nucifora shed no tears when Leinster’s professional board parted company with his fellow Aussie, Cullen wasn’t the man he had in mind to replace O Connor.

It’s not that he doesn’t rate what Cullen’s proven leadership ability and strong rugby intellect would bring to the table, it’s just that in terms of top end coaching experience, Leinster’s most successful captain ever was clearly lacking in that department.

Nucifora is very much his own man and knows exactly what he wants. 

That hasn’t always gone down well within the committee structure that still prevails in Irish rugby and has led to a power struggle for control of the province’s, one that Nucifora is winning hands down.

The Leinster committee, in particular, have been wary of him for some time with the most recent announcement that former Ireland U20 star Cian Kelleher is set to join Connacht on a full contract next season, despite the fact that Leinster had already agreed to offer him a development contract to keep him in Dublin.

Nucifora is the key player when it comes to approving non-Irish qualified overseas signings for the provinces and also has sign off on the key provincial managerial appointments. That works both ways. 

For example, without his influence and standing in the professional game worldwide, it is very unlikely that Munster would have been able to attract Erasmus to Munster.

With only four squads to feed a national team over which, as Joe Schmidt’s boss, he also has responsibility for, Nucifora is hellbent on ensuring that all four provinces have proven and experienced performers at the helm. 

If the quality and consistency of the coaching on offer is consistently high across the board, then it becomes far easier to convince promising young talent like Kelleher to switch to another province in order to secure the playing time necessary to develop.

The fact that Pat Lam has achieved that in Connacht has ticked that box while the addition of Erasmus in Munster along with the arrival of Les Kiss in Ulster after the World Cup last November means that the focus will inevitably shift to the Leinster coaching set-up.

Under Nucifora’s watch, it is unlikely that you will ever again see a head coach appointed to any of the province’s without having fulfilled that role at either Champions Cup or Super Rugby level. 

The message therefore is clear for promising Irish coaches. Overseas exposure, such as that being amassed at present by the likes of Bernard Jackman, Conor O Shea, Mark McCall, and Ronan O’Gara, is a must if you want to climb to the top of the tree in the coaching ladder with an Irish province.

Anthony Foley has already found that out to his cost, even if he still retains the title of head coach in Munster. 

Unfortunately for him, that is no more than semantics. 

He now has a choice. Take a step back and invest time under the tutelage of Erasmus or start again in a new environment.

Leinster’s inept performance in Belfast last Saturday, despite the fact that 14 of their match day squad of 23 saw game time in the Six Nations championship, makes it inevitable that Cullen faces a similar examination. 

While he is contracted to Leinster for next season, you can be sure that Nucifora and others are already examining the options available in strengthening the Leinster coaching ticket.

Cullen was thrown in at the deep end when the Leinster professional board failed to attract applicants of the required stature after parting company with O’Connor. 

He deserves help and support. 

One imagines Nucifora is already lining up a lifebelt to be cast Leinster’s way.


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