by Brendan Cole
The decision on who will take over as the next permanent Ireland head coach will not be made until after this summer’s tour of North America, but the field has already taken shape with Australian Ewen McKenzie leading the betting at this point.
A 47-year-old former Wallabies prop, McKenzie represented Australia between 1990 and 1997, and was a Rugby World Cup winner in 1991. He began his career as head coach with the NSW Waratahs in 2002, steering them to the Super 12 final in 2003 and to the semi-finals in 2006 and 2008.
After that, McKenzie coached in Europe for a brief period, taking charge of Stade Francais for a spell which ended with his sacking after the Parisians were threatened by relegation early in the 2009-10 season.
He soon took over at the Reds, turning them from strugglers into a successful outfit known for playing entertaining, creative brand of rugby, with half-back pair Will Genia and Quade Cooper playing a starring role.
The Reds won the Super 14 for the first time in their history in 2011, ending six years of dominance by the Bulls and the Crusaders.
The Reds are currently fourth in the Super 15.
He became the odds-on favourite with bookmakers to take over as Ireland coach even before the IRFU decision not to renew Declan Kidney’s contract became public.
The Melbourne native has already announced he will leave the Queensland Reds at the end of this season, and that he wants to coach at Test level next.
He said that the Ireland job was "the type of job I am interested in looking at".
But it is not as simple as stepping from that job into the Irish one. McKenzie is on record as saying he would like to coach the Wallabies after Robbie Deans, and Deans could struggle to survive this summer’s Lions series.
McKenzie has a burgeoning reputation and would represent a fresh start. On the pitch, Ireland could expect a shift towards a less-structured, Australian style and away from the collision and set-piece dominated mentality Ireland have adopted in recent seasons.
But are Irish supporters ready for the inevitable bedding-in period that would follow as McKenzie familiarised himself with the players, the provincial setup and the Irish way of doing things?
Exactly how much money has been wagered on the Australian is a moot point and those short odds look very cramped just now.
Well liked, and thought of as an innovative and highly effective coach by supporters and players, Schmidt has long been seen as a leading choice for next Ireland head coach.
Already an IRFU employee, albeit with just a year left on his deal with Leinster, there are persistent rumours that a return to New Zealand is in Schmidt’s future in the medium term.
That said, Schmidt is surely canny enough to know that opportunities to coach at international level come around relatively rarely.
A specialist backs coach prior to joining Leinster, Schmidt was Vern Cotter’s assistant at Clermont-Auvergne and was on board when they finally broke their Bouclier De Brennus hoodoo by winning the title for the first time in their history in 2010.
Before that, he coached New Zealand Schools, Bay of Plenty and as an assistant with Super 14 side Auckland Blues.
The New Zealander’s two Heineken Cup wins with Leinster are the outstanding achievements on his CV, and equally impressive is the style with which those trophies were won.
Having battled and defended their way to success in 2009, the accuracy and quality of Leinster’s attacking play and their ability to dominate Europe’s strongest sides in knockout competition in 2011 and 2012 bears noting.
Even though Leinster missed out on the Heineken Cup knockout stages this season, Schmidt would be a popular choice with the Irish rugby public.
Getting him to take the job could also be Ireland’s best chance of convincing Brian O’Driscoll to take another run at a Six Nations at the very least.
That persistent suggestion that a move back to New Zealand is in Schmidt’s plans when he finishes with Leinster would require some smart deal-making by the IRFU.
And while his stock is currently high, what if Leinster have another average season? The squad is weakening, with Jonny Sexton’s move to Paris and the failure to recruit a powerful second row both hitting standards this year.
Could Schmidt be persuaded to take Ireland to the 2015 Rugby World Cup with, in theory at least, an indigenous coach taking over after?
The example of Jim Mallinder, at one stage the high-flying coach of a dominant Northampton Saints and apparent England coach in-waiting, is worth noting.
Missing the boat can be costly.
A former Australia Rugby League wing, Kiss has been Ireland’s defence and the attack coach over the past number of seasons and deserves significant credit for his role in Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam.
That success was founded on strong defense as much as anything else and while there are similarities between the successful methods employed by Leinster and Ireland at around the same time, Kiss was directly responsible for the Irish system.
Kiss is also credited with introducing the ‘choke’ tackle concept into the Irish game and that has been a successful tactic at times, though some sides have exploited it to their advantage.
On the other hand, Ireland’s failure to adapt their approach as referees shifted their theirs, particularly at the breakdown in the 2010 season, would also have to be looked at. Arguably, Ireland have still yet to catch up.
Kiss will have to explain away some distinctly moderate performances in his area of responsibility this season if he is to capture the top job. Ireland’s attack was slick for the first half against Wales, but it failed to fire for the rest of the championship, yielding just two tries in four games.
But Kiss will still present as a strong candidate who has been responsible for many of the positives in the Irish setup in recent seasons. Being handed oversight of the tour of North America this summer will be seen by some as indicating that he is at least in the running for the top job.
Frequently mentioned by supporters as someone they would like to see in the role at some point, O’Shea has enjoyed significant success as both a coach and a sports administrator since hanging up his boots in 2000.
He has been an huge success in his current Director of Rugby role with Quins, winning the Amlin Challenge Cup in his first season and the Premiership title in his second and if an ability to restore order where once there was chaos is the key criteria, O'Shea would certainly fit the bill.
But his statement today that he is not interested in the role appears to rule him out of the picture completely.