The magic of the Heineken Cup continues and the level of anticipation rises further with two intriguing semi-finals this weekend. Former Irish international scrum-half Michael Bradley will be hoping his Edinburgh side can continue their dream run when they face a resurgent Ulster lead by “dead man walking” Brian McLaughlin. Meanwhile the meeting in Bordeaux between Joe Schmidt’s Leinster and fellow Kiwi Vern Cotter’s Clermont Auvergne further demonstrates the prominence of New Zealanders in the world of rugby coaching.
Bradley’s coaching reputation has soared as Edinburgh provides the only glimmer of optimism for Scottish rugby in what has been a miserable twelve months. Known as a quiet man, Bradley has already managed to outsmart more experienced and better known coaches. The manner in which Edinburgh overcame Toulouse in the quarter final was evidence of the astute coach he has become. Bradley was briefly caretaker coach of the Irish national team and has also coached Ireland U21 and A sides. Andy Robinson’s contract as Scotland coach runs until 2015, but if results don’t improve next season there will be further calls for Bradley to replace him.
Ulster coach McLaughlin is probably least well known of the four men looking to lead their teams to Twickenham for the final in May. While McLaughlin has experience as specialist skills coach within the Irish national squad, his main coaching achievements were at schools level. Director of Rugby David Humphreys, who captained Ulster to their only Heineken Cup success in 1999, has decided that McLaughlin is not the man to take Ulster to the next level. His replacement, Mark Anscombe, (another bloody Kiwi!) takes over the reins on June 1st – a mere two weeks after the Heineken final. A curious situation and no doubt McLaughlin would love to bow out with a cup winner’s medal to accompany the noose around his neck.
Joe Schmidt knows Vern Cotter and Clermont better than most. He was part of the coaching team that took the French team to their first Top 14 title in 2010. He and Cotter are mates. They know what makes each other tick. Schmidt has earned great respect from his Leinster players for his honesty, brutal honesty if that is what’s required. There is nowhere for players to hide at the Monday morning match review session. Schmidt preaches Aristotle to his squad – “excellence is not an act, but a habit”. Leinster will be looking to demonstrate this mantra on Sunday and extend their thirteen-match Heineken Cup winning run. Ironically their last defeat was against Clermont in the poll stages of last year’s competition. Regardless of the outcome of the game, the IRFU would be mugs not to second Schmidt to their coaching group for this summer’s tour to New Zealand.
Cotter meanwhile is probably better known in Europe these days than in his native New Zealand. He has managed to turn around the fortunes of the perennially under-performing Clermont and has instilled in them the steeliness for which he is known. Cotter’s side combines physical confrontation upfront with silky skills and speed in the backs. They have recruited wisely and in Nathan Hines have a lock who won a “Heineken Cup”http://www.therugbysite.com/blog_categories/5-heineken-cup medal with Leinster last year. One assumes Leinster have changed the lineout calls! Hines is partnered in Clermont’s second row by Canadian international Jamie Cudmore – 6’6”, 18 ½ stone and known as Cuddles to his teammates. Their clash with Brad Thorn and Leo Cullen will be worth watching in itself. Despite this being their first HC semi-final appearance, Clermont are always one of the most feared opponents in the competition.
Predicting the outcomes of semi finals is invariably fraught with danger. One certainty this year however is that the final will see an Irish coach pitched against a New Zealander in the battle for European coaching supremacy. I think that Ulster are probably too experienced for Edinburgh, with the muscle of Stephen Ferris and the boot of South African Ruan Pienaar likely to be vital factors. Leinster’s experience and electric back line might be what gives them the edge against Clermont. Either way it should be a cracking weekend of European rugby.