Matt O’Connor started work with the Pro 12 and Amlin Challenge Cup champions four weeks ago, becoming the third straight non-native to hold the position since Declan Kidney’s one year in charge ended in 2005.
With Rob Penney ensconced at Munster, Mark Anscombe in charge at Ulster and Pat Lam succeeding Eric Elwood at Connacht, there are now no Irish head provincial coaches for the first time in the professional era.
Such a situation has, of course, extended to the national scene where Joe Schmidt took the reins from Kidney three months ago, although there are Irishmen such as Mark McCall and Conor O’Shea holding down head coach roles abroad.
“It’s probably something that we should be conscious of. I wouldn’t necessarily see it as a concern,” said O’Connor who was briefing the Irish media for the first time. “If we look at the game globally, it’s moved down that direction.
“Warren Gatland, Robbie Deans... there’s numerous examples of different nationalities coaching in different countries. It’s something to keep an eye on and, if there’s opportunities to promote Irish coaches, it probably needs looking at quite seriously.”
The lack of opportunities for Irish coaches in a professional pool as small as that which exists on these shores has long been an issue and O’Connor sympathised while pointing out that he had come through a similar system in Australia.
The solution, he stressed, was to nurture coaches through their involvement at Academy levels where they enjoy the responsibility for the provincial ‘A’ sides and there was similar talk when talk turned to the playing staff at Leinster.
With key players such as Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa among those to leave during the summer, and a handful of others such as Leo Cullen approaching retirement age, there will be a need to tweak the side and squad under O’Connor. The most obvious example this year will be at outside-centre where Brian O’Driscoll will see out his last season as a professional.
“I think we are in a really good place with Brian in the sense that he is still in the environment. He is still going to be playing for us but if we manage his playing time, there is really good scope for us to look at the succession plan — what Leinster, Ireland do beyond Brian O’Driscoll, which is a huge positive.
“I’d much prefer to have him in the environment to do that than have him out of the environment and be going in at the deep end without the quality of Brian within the group. We won’t play him to death. We will try and get him right, get the best bang for our buck in that regard.”
All in all, it was a positive first impression which O’Connor made — only once did he say Leicester when he meant Leinster — and he even managed to inject some humour into proceedings during an amiable yet searching half-hour of enquiries.
He lauded the Leinster culture and admitted there was the need only for a few little adjustments and admitted that the established style of forceful forward play and attractive back play would probably be retained.
Much of that depends on how Ian Madigan fares at 10. Jimmy Gopperth may have been signed from Newcastle Falcons but the new boss agrees that Madigan is a man he could build a team around — although he challenged the young Dubliner to back up his breakthrough season last time out.
“That’s the challenge for Ian. He has been in the group for a long time. He hasn’t played a lot of rugby in the 10 shirt for Leinster because Jonny has been here and done such a fantastic job, but if we think back four or five years, who was Johnny Sexton? He was second fiddle to a foreigner, not playing a lot of rugby. When he took his opportunity he went from strength to strength. Hopefully Ian can do that. He certainly showed he has the temperament and the ability to do that.”