Brian O’Driscoll’s final international appearances were greeted with an unprecedented emotional outpouring from a grateful nation that, along with the wider rugby community, has marvelled at his exploits on the Test match stage for the last 15 years.
The tears and cheers were no doubt fuelled by the realisation that he will never pull on an Ireland shirt again and the fact he leaves a sizeable void in the national side and Irish rugby in general.
Unsurprisingly, the focus soon turned to how Ireland could continue to benefit from O’Driscoll’s expertise and experience. Surely it doesn’t have to be goodbye? Could he simply step into the coaching ranks and bolster Ireland’s challenge for the 2015 Rugby World Cup?
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, who did his utmost to extend their working relationship by managing the veteran centre’s workload in recent months, is convinced O’Driscoll has what it takes to enjoy similar success as a coach.
“He’s intelligent, he’s got great values, and he is hard-working, he’s a great role model for people and he knows the game inside-out.” Schmidt told reporters when pressed on the issue, before adding, “Certainly I’ve learned a lot from him.”
He is not the only one predicting further success with some bookmakers reportedly already taking bets on O’Driscoll coaching the British & Irish Lions in the not too distant future.
But do the best players make the best coaches? A quick survey of the most successful international coaches in the professional era suggests that experience of playing at the top level would appear to be a key factor for some but not all.
Sir Ian McGeechan and Sir Clive Woodward, who can lay claim to notable achievements with the Lions and at the Rugby World Cup respectively, both enjoyed extensive careers as Test players.
Wales coach Warren Gatland, arguably the most successful northern hemisphere coach of the pro era with a CV including Premiership titles, Heineken Cups, Six Nations Grand Slams and a series victory with the Lions, was an All Black during his playing days although he missed out on a Test cap.
However, the last two coaches to have tasted Rugby World Cup glory – Sir Graham Henry and Jake White – did so having not played the game to a high standard. Similarly, Rod Macqueen, who steered the Wallabies to World Cup glory in 1999 made his name as a coach – not a player.
Current England boss Stuart Lancaster is another carving out a formidable reputation as a coach following a playing career that peaked with club side Leeds and internationally at age-group level with Scotland.
They may lack the Test caps of some of their peers, but as students of the game these coaches are not lacking in terms of understanding the demands of the sport. The success they have all enjoyed can be largely attributed to their free-thinking approach, innovation and man-management skills – none of which are dependent on an extensive playing career.
The world’s best players clearly have a lot to give in terms of insight into how to succeed in the modern game. The wealth of coaching content on this very site includes masterclasses from the likes Richie McCaw, Sam Warbuton, Dan Carter, Leigh Halfpenny and Victor Matfield – all specialists in their field from whom others can learn.
O’Driscoll is no doubt in that category having excelled for over a decade during which time he has overcome countless challenges and over-hauled his game to prolong his career. But there is no guarantee that success will follow when boots are traded for a whiteboard. Few individuals earned more respect as a player than Martin Johnson, a World Cup winner with England and stalwart of a success-laden Leicester side. However, despite a Six Nations title, he struggled to convince many when he became England team manager with a lack of a coaching pedigree – hence his job title – pinpointed as a major concern throughout his tenure.
Exposure to successful coaching systems is arguably just as influential when laying the foundation for similar returns on the sidelines. The influence of New Zealand coaches continues to be felt around the rugby globe such is their reputation and that of the system that has produced them.
Gatland is clearly the most high-profile example but there are countless at work in Tier 1 countries and beyond with a total of five having led sides into the last World Cup. They can also be found throughout the domestic game with Vern Cotter another export who has excelled with Clermont Auvergne in France and who will shortly step up to the international stage with Scotland.
And O’Driscoll need look no further than Ireland for further evidence in the form of national coach Schmidt, Munster boss Rob Penney and his Connacht counterpart Pat Lam. Meanwhile back in New Zealand, the likes of Henry and former assistant Wayne Smith remain very much part of the domestic set-up, and therefore have active roles in the development of the next generation of top-class coaches.
The key figure in all of this is of course O’Driscoll who will give it a little thought as he contemplates one final push with Leinster in the PRO12 and Heineken Cup. His province are understandably keen to retain his services as a coach next season but O’Driscoll has suggested the role of husband and father may take precedence and if anyone deserves a rest it is a player who has served the sport so well for so long.
Can you see Brian O’Driscoll stepping into a coaching role and playing a part for Ireland at the 2015 RWC? Comments below…