Ex-Wallabies coach Robbie Deans tipped for Leinster post
Deans among shortlist drawn up to replace Matt O’Connor, whose reign ended yesterday
Former Australia coach Robbie Deans: his odds shortened rapidly from 17-2 to 1-4 before steadying at 8-15 overnight with Paddy Power, suggesting he may be Leinster’s preferred choice. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
The former Crusaders and Wallabies’ head coach Robbie Deans has emerged as the front-runner to become the next Leinster head coach in succession to Matt O’Connor, whose two-year reign came to an end yesterday with over 12 months left on his contract.
Deans is amongst the half dozen or so names which the Leinster Professional Games Board have drawn up on their short-list, and which is also understood to feature the former Leinster forwards coach Jono Gibbes and another former Wallabies’ coach Ewen McKenzie.
It would be a surprise if the shortlist did not also include Irish coaches, such as Grenoble’s Bernard Jackman or perhaps even Girvan Dempsey, who has impressed as Leinster’s Academy Director, although as Leo Cullen has just completed his first season as forwards’ coach, it is likelier that Leinster will opt for a more established head coach.
Another name who has attracted some backing with the bookies is the Exeter coach Rob Baxter, while Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend has been mentioned in dispatches although he also looks a long shot. Conor O’Shea, who has another year on his current deal with Harlequins and is again apparently not inclined to break a contract and uproot his young family from London, and Les Kiss, who has agreed to become the next Director of Rugby at Ulster after the World Cup, have drifted to 66-1 in the betting.
By contrast, the flurry of bets which had seen Deans’ odds shorten rapidly from 17-2 to 1-4 before steadying at 8-15 overnight with Paddy Powers, intimates that he may be the preferred choice of the PGB. Deans is currently head coach with the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan but is believed to be interested in re-locating to Europe.
The second favourite at 7-2 is Gibbes, who was Leinster’s forwards coach for all three of their Heineken Cups in his six years there, and is just completing the first season of a two-year deal at Clermont, with the option of a third season. Were he to be considered Leinster would also need to appoint a backs’ coach and another big name who could then enter the fray as an assistant is Ronan O’Gara, given his working relationship for the last two years at Racing Metro with the homeward-bound Johnny Sexton. Another returning player, Isa Nacewa, was expected to adopt a coaching role in 2016/17, and that could now be accelerated.
Of all the overseas’ based coaches thus far mentioned, the only one out of contract is McKenzie, third favourite at 11-2, whose Super Rugby-winning Queensland Reds and Wallabies’ sides were noted for the kind of thrilling rugby which Leinster supporters crave.
It’s worth noting that Leinster have never rushed their coaching appointments, preferring a period of consultation and interviews, and given the timing of O’Connor’s departure they have no reason to vary from that approach so this time. Conceivably therefore, they may make no appointment until around mid-August.
In their last three choices, Leinster have shown a preference for choosing up and coming coaches, namely Michael Cheika (who was coaching club rugby in Sydney with Randwick), Joe Schmidt (who was an assistant/backs coach at Clermont) and O’Connor, who had the same role at Leicester Tigers. But the indications this time are that they are inclined toward a more experienced head coach.
The decision to dispense with O’Connor’s services, when it came, appears to have been swift and although “mutual” according to yesterday’s statement, was instigated or at any rate approved by the PGB, which is comprised of Ben Underwood (chair), Mick Dawson, Guy Easterby, Frank Sowman, Paul Dean, Ray Ryan, Des Lamont, Philip Orr and Tony O’Beirne.
Although Leinster came within a missed drop goal of reaching the European Champions Cup final in their semi-final defeat to eventual winners Toulon in Marseille, the PGB took Leinster’s league form as a more reliable barometer of their well-being under O’Connor. Despite retaining the Pro12 last season, this season’s fifth placed finish constituted their worst since 2003-04. The PGB would also have been concerned by the increasing disaffection amongst Leinster fans at the team’s performances and a drop from 13,000 to 10,000 in pre-season ticket sales at the comparative point two seasons ago.
There is a suggestion that O’Connor had either inquired about an extension to his contract, or that the PGB had indicated to him they were not willing to do so, which thus ran the risk of him becoming a ‘lame duck’ head coach from around October onwards.
The Leinster players and coaching staff received a group text on Wednesday night calling them to a meeting early yesterday morning where the Leinster CEO Mick Dawson informed them of O’Connor’s departure. Virtually all were surprised and even a little saddened by the news, for O’Connor remained highly popular amongst the players and indeed the entire Leinster staff.
O’Connor himself was not in attendance at the meeting and thus did not have the opportunity to say goodbye to the players. O’Connor and his wife Jo, and their kids Sara, 17 (who attends St Andrew’s) Harry, 13, and Ryan, 11, (who are in Blackrock) will now presumably have to move on as O’Connor seeks new coaching pastures, perhaps at the Reds in Queensland, where he has already been linked.
Although the decision was entirely within the remit of the PGB, O’Connor’s falling out with Joe Schmidt and the IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora would not have helped.
After O’Connor publicly bemoaned the lack of access to his front-liners, citing their availability for 30% of Leinster’s games, he was witheringly rebuked by Nucifora. At a press conference called by Schmidt and Nucifora, the latter said: “Over the last couple of weeks there have been some inaccuracies in what’s being said and written about the system. A lot of that is obviously attributed to Leinster’s struggle to qualify for the Pro12 semi-finals.”
Schmidt stated: “Two years ago through the Six Nations period Leinster got 18 out of 20 available points. Last year they got 19 out of 20 available points. This year they got nine out of 20 available points.”
“If you look at the teams that were put out through those three years those teams are very similar and have international experience, with guys who have been internationally capped. I think from that perspective the system isn’t broken and we’re trying to refine it every quarter.”