Managing change will be primary task for Joe Schmidt and Matt O’Connor

Matt Williams column


So, to new beginnings.

Today Joe Schmidt is the national coach of Ireland and Matt O’Connor is head coach of Leinster. It would be an interesting experiment in coaching to record Joe and Matt’s expectations of what the next 12 months will bring, then to revisit them next May to reveal the reality.

I am sure the truth of the next 12 months will be very different from the dream of today.

I was surprised that a motivation for Joe to move to the national team was that he perceived the role of national coach would allow him to spend more time with his family.

When I took on a national role my children were at national school in Greystones, Co Wicklow. Like a lot of dads who travel with their work I missed being away from my kids. The then Magners League and Heineken Cup took me away every second weekend.

I was shocked to find that in my first year as a national coach I spent more than six months away from home.

Team camps, travelling to watch games, overseas tours, Six Nations meetings, and scouting away venues. Even on home games in the Six Nations you are in camp away from your family.

As a club coach I put my kids to bed every night, as a national coach I talked to them on the phone.

The demands of the Six Nations tournament will also be a shock. I had been a head coach in Super 12 Rugby and the Heineken Cup but nothing prepared me for the amount of interest from the media in the Six Nations.

Every news outlet from every rugby country in the world wants a piece of your time.

At my first Six Nations launch there were literally hundreds of media representatives. The magnitude was quite staggering.

All of this pulls you away from your primary task of actually coaching the team.

At Clermont and Leinster, Joe implemented great team systems. Coaching clubs allows plenty of time with the players to get the systems right. International coaching is the exact opposite.

International coaches are time-poor with their team.

Racing Metro are not paying Jonny Sexton to play for Ireland. Joe will only get Sexton in the sparse International Rugby Board-designated windows. At the all too short team camps players arrive from multiple clubs with a huge amount of clutter in their brains that has to be removed.

Joe will also have to be an agent of change. No matter how you look at it, the Irish attacking systems have not functioned. Les Kiss is a coach I respect, but the Irish “go-forward” needs to be overhauled.

The narrowness of the Irish defence remains problematic. Of the approximately 67metres width of the field, the Irish defensive line is covering about two thirds. Opposition teams are naturally attacking the empty one third. As simple as this sounds, players are being drawn to the ruck like bees to the honey pot and leaving the edges unmanned.

This also has to be fixed.

When Joe arrived at Leinster they were already a dominant force, full of champion players with a European trophy in the cabinet.

Ireland are not at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, but a considerable way down it.

Not a bad place to start for a coach. The team is likely to improve.

For Matt O’Connor, it is not such a cosy starting point. Matt must have watched Leinster lift another trophy on Saturday and groaned.

Anything less than a Heineken Cup win and next season will be less successful. That is hardly just, but in terms of trophies it is the reality.

Matt moves from assistant coach to head coach. Only a few letters between the titles, but a universe of difference in the roles.

Role change
As an assistant coach your job is about what happens on the field. Full stop.

As head coach you are responsible not only for every on field action but for every action in the club. Contracts, staff appraisals, forward planning, budgets and recruitment. There are endless meetings with the IRFU, the national coaching team, the provincial chairman and chief executive, sponsors, academies . . . in Ireland the meetings seem to be never ending.

The year I moved from being an assistant to head coach in Super Rugby was like being in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars and flicking the switch to move to “hyperspace.” Your vision blurs as your universe moves at a ridiculously fast pace.

Precise planning, meticulous detail and the willingness to say “no, I can’t do that” will be Matt’s greatest asset. His future will hang on how he manages the relationship with the assistant coaches and staff who are remaining at Leinster. This will be tough for him. They are Joe’s people not “his”.

As it has always done and always will do, coaching in Ireland is evolving. In times of change, Darwin’s theory on evolution is always worth remembering – it is not the strongest who survive but those who best manage change who will dominate their environment.

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