IRFU begin search for new head coach

Outside consultant enlisted to help draw up a shortlist of candidates


Although Ewen McKenzie has been swiftly installed as the odds-on favourite to become the full-time successor to Declan Kidney, backing the Queensland Reds coach at 2/1 on would appear to be very premature based on soundings coming from the IRFU. The process of finding a replacement is already under way, but no shortlist has been finalised yet.

IRFU CEO Philip Browne yesterday confirmed that “an outside professional consultant” had been enlisted to help them with the process of identifying a short list, from which the Union will in turn choose “another world-class coach”.

This process was already “up and running” according to Browne, with the unnamed consultant, who has experience of playing and coaching in the professional game, already sounding out some of those coaches who have been identified by the Union’s National Team Review Group (NTRG), which comprises Browne, its chairman, Martin O’Sullivan, IRFU honorary treasurer Tom Grace, Pat Whelan and Director of Rugby Eddie Wigglesworth.

They were also the body which met with Kidney on the Wednesday after Ireland’s Six Nations finale in Rome, and following another couple of meetings last week came to the decision not to renew Kidney’s contract at the end of the season.

In his stead, assistant/attack coach Les Kiss will step in as interim head coach, with Gert Smal and Anthony Foley continuing as forwards and defence coach, for the tour of North America, where Ireland will play the USA (Houston, June 8th) and Canada (Toronto, June 15th).

In a statement, Browne said: “We would like to sincerely thank Declan for his commitment to Irish rugby. His contribution and involvement across the spectrum of Irish rugby delivered underage, provincial, Grand Slam and Triple Crown success, and epitomises his passion, belief and commitment to the game.”

Later in the day, Browne also admitted that Kidney “would have liked a new contract” and that it had been “a very difficult process and a very difficult decision for us to take. Declan has been a huge part of the professional coaching structure in Ireland for the last 15 years but we went through a process looking back over the last 18 months and looking at what we felt was needed to take the team forward, and obviously one has to take into account the injury profile in the Six Nations as well, but at the end of the day we have to take decisions which are in the best interests of the Irish team in the long term and our view was this is the best time to change the coaching structure. It was a difficult decision and he was disappointed but he understood.”

Interviewing panel
“We are going to use outside professional advice to help us with the process. I think we will also bring on board, in terms of the interviewing panel, someone with experience and expertise in professional rugby and I think our aim will be to find another world-class coach for the Irish team.”

No timescale has been put in place to name Kidney’s successor but the IRFU say they would like to make an appointment “sooner rather than later”.

Ideally too, Browne admitted, the IRFU would have appointed their proposed new Professional Game Board and Performance Director in advance of the new head coach to the national team but that “realistically, that is going to be difficult”.

With regard to the new coach, one hopes that the outside consultant has already made entreaties to Joe Schmidt, the stand-out candidate. Hugely well thought of by the Leinster players after guiding them to successive Heineken Cups, he has already built up an extensive working knowledge of Ireland’s playing pool as well as the IRFU system – although whether the latter would be a hindrance rather than a help to him accepting any offer is a moot point.

Besides which, it is widely felt within Leinster circles that Schmidt would not walk out on his current job with a one-year extension to his stay still to be completed, and that when this expires he may well be of a mind to return to New Zealand.

There have also been rumours that Schmidt’s coaching sidekick at Clermont Auvergne, Vern Cotter, has been sounded out a few months back but the likelihood is that he too is intent on seeing out his final year with Clermont, with the distinct possibility that the pair will return to New Zealand and team up again.

Conor O’Shea, who has wrought a remarkable transformation at Harlequins in turning them around from Bloodgate to English champions, would be the most popular and leading native candidate, but he too recently signed a contract extension with the London club and he has stated his desire to continue a job which he regards as a work in progress. Jake White, South Africa’s World Cup winning coach, is also in the second of a three -year deal with the Brumbies.

The appointment of Kiss as interim head coach gives him a head start over other candidates, although to at least some degree he and Gert Smal have also been tarnished by recent results. Others, such as Mark Anscombe at Ulster or Mark McCall at Saracens, could yet come stronger into the reckoning if either guided their team to a Heineken Cup triumph.

As for McKenzie’s status as favourite, this has largely hinged on reports of a reputed approach to the ex-Wallabies prop, who has stated his desire to leave the Reds at the end of this season and has expressed a desire to move into Test rugby.

But this is more likely to be a pitch for the Wallabies job next year should Robbie Deans not earn a contract extension.

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