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Matt Williams: Graham Rowntree must manage expectations at Munster, a long-term approach is vital

Pathway from second-in-command to head coach is lined with peril

A newly recruited high-quality head coach, combined with a host of talented imported players, can immediately produce instant improvements in a club’s performance.

Unlike French and English clubs, who can buy coaches and multiple talented foreign players in a single off season, Irish provincial clubs are rightly bound to develop their own indigenous playing talent.

This means that provincial coaches must follow the long-term processes of developing and enhancing the talents of local players.

In this coaching process in Ireland, players must firstly be educated on how to enhance their skills, tactical knowledge and game sense. Secondly, through the development of team culture, the coach must align the behaviours of their players so that each individual’s actions helps to create an environment in which deep trust can flourish — the type of trust that forges lifelong relationships and creates an unshakeable belief in their coaches and team-mates.


All of these foundational processes must be in place before the coach attempts the most crucial phase, that of empowering the players. This empowerment hands the players full responsibility for their actions in playing the great game.

Player empowerment has become a cliché that now ambushes inexperienced coaches into believing that it is best to bypass the demanding, yet essential, tasks of player education and behavioural alignment and move straight to player empowerment.

Leaders who skip straight to empowerment create teams that are like a monkey with a machine gun. The players might accidentally pull the trigger but they have no concept of the behavioural choices of who to aim at or the possible disastrous consequences of their actions.

I have witnessed many vastly contrasting and successful methods from head coaches. Rod McQueen and Clive Woodward won World Cups while being technically hands-off with their teams’ preparations. They focused on empowering their talented staff to deliver the technical aspects of the game while they drove the mindset of their team and the cultural behaviours of winning within the group.

Joe Schmidt experienced great success implementing extreme technical detail and excellence.

Scott Robertson won multiple Super Rugby championships with the Canterbury Crusaders as a highly detailed coach, with vast technical understanding, combined with the ability to create a long-term winning environment.

Head coaches must decide what will be the most effective methods to cover the huge variety of requirements that each individual team needs for success. What shape that coaching process takes depends on the stage of development of the team when the coach is handed the reins. That will vary greatly from team to team.

The coaching processes required to lead the Crusaders are vastly different from the requirements of coaching Munster. Graham Rowntree’s mission at Munster is complicated. Down Munster way, there is an unrealistic expectation that he must deliver immediate success when a long-term approach is vital.

Schmidt, Johann van Graan and Andy Farrell have all trodden the same path as Rowntree. They were all top-line assistant coaches who struggled at the beginning of their new and unfamiliar role as head coach.

Not all who embark on that journey from assistant coach to a winning head coach survive. Being a high-quality number two coach is a universe away from being a top-line number one. The skills needed to survive as a head coach cannot be learned by observing others. It is a profession that has to be lived to be learned.

The journey for every successful head coach is one of self-discovery. Learning how to lead and what style that leadership should take is acquired by enduring the harsh realities and enormous pressures that coaching a top-line club brings.

Tony McGahan, Laurie Fisher, Rob Penney, Rassie Erasmus and Van Graan have all trodden the same path that Rowntree now faces.

The uncomfortable reality is that Munster’s playing talent does not place them at the top of the European pile. While last week’s loss to the Dragons was unacceptably horrid, if we compare Munster’s playing roster to that of La Rochelle, Toulouse or Leinster, the men in red are ranked in the tier below.

For Munster to win the Champions Cup is an aspirational goal. Rowntree’s problem is that no one in Munster sees that reality.

That does not mean that Munster are a poor team. Far from it. As they proved in last year’s Champions Cup quarter-final against Toulouse, they can push the best to the very limit.

Munster’s problem is that they do not have the brilliant individuals possessing the staggering skills that they had in abundance in past decades. There is no Ronan O’Gara, Paul O’Connell or Dougie Howlett who can create that moment of genius to win vital knockout matches.

In the same week that Rowntree and his staff began to feel the heat defeat brings, Irish rugby’s most successful home-grown coach, Leo Cullen, was forced to endure another headache as Stuart Lancaster announced that he was off to the joys of driving to work across the Parisian traffic at Racing 92.

Lancaster has been an outstanding success with Leinster. Every former player I have spoken to has been lavish in their praise of his knowledge, analysis and teaching skills. His influence on Leinster’s success has been immeasurable.

In the wake of the 2015 World Cup, when Cullen hired Lancaster and provided him with an expansive role within Leinster, most considered it an appointment bordering on the bizarre. How wrong they all were.

It was the first of multiple decisions that has seen Cullen emerge as one of the best rugby thinkers I have witnessed.

The greatest influence any head coach can have on their team’s performance is their selection of the match-day players and those who coach them. Be it players or coaches, Cullen’s ability to put the right people in the right place at the right time continues to be a powerful asset that is undervalued by the vast majority of the Irish rugby community.

The constant outside sniping at Cullen’s leadership displays a very shabby side of Irish rugby’s mentality. It is a small-minded inability to look at his achievements, as one of Ireland’s own, and give him the recognition he has earned. This reeks of both ignorance and a type of self-loathing. It is as if the Irish rugby community does not believe that their own system can produce a coaching leader of excellence.

Empowering Lancaster to deliver the bulk of Leinster’s exceptionally high-quality technical coaching was a masterstroke by Cullen.

Refusing to recognise his extraordinary ability to select the right people and empower them to perform is the height of ignorance regarding the role of the head coach.

Cullen’s leadership has created an environment that maximises the talents of his coaches and players. As Rowntree is learning, being the boss is about leading the entire organisation and not just technical coaching expertise.

Lancaster will be greatly missed at Leinster. However, his departure will create another opportunity for Cullen to add a fresh and talented new voice to assist him and his fellow coaches to educate, align and empower the Leinster players.