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OPINION: Hurricanes job is a two-horse race

Hurricanes coach Colin Cooper will stepdown at the end of the season

WITH long-serving coach Colin Cooper moving on after next season, the search is on to find his successor at the Hurricanes.

Whoever steps into the breach will have huge boots to fill. After all, Cooper, who is the second longest serving Super rugby coach behind former Crusaders maestro Robbie Deans, has easily been the most successful mentor the ‘Canes have had in their 15-year existence.

While he has failed to bring any silverware to the capital, Cooper has done a remarkable job of transforming an exceptionally gifted and talented – but often ill-disciplined, erratic and inconsistent – bunch of players into a consistent force that can challenge for the championship and is usually there or thereabouts come the business end of the season.

Four semi final appearances – including a final (the infamous ‘Battle of the Fog’) in 2006 – in six years speaks for itself and shows how far the team has come from the token playoff experience they had between 1996 and 2002, a time when the Hurricanes promised much, but ultimately failed to deliver despite having all the strike power in the world.

But the time has come for the 50-year-old to move aside. He has probably achieved everything he is ever going to with the team and if they are to push on and finally win the elusive trophy, some new ideas and direction are needed.

Fortunately the region is flush with quality coaches within its ranks, with three candidates – Dave Rennie, Peter Russell and Jamie Joseph – in the running to inherit the reigns at the Wellington-based franchise.

Jamie Joseph

Joseph is an up-and-coming coach with a big future. He is highly regarded in rugby circles and has shown he’s got the goods, the no-nonsense task master guiding the Wellington Lions to back-to-back Air New Zealand Cup finals and ending the city’s 26-year Ranfurly Shield drought – something this scribe will be forever grateful for, I must add! He was also assistant coach of the New Zealand Maoris in 2006.

But there is a feeling that while the former All Black flanker may have the backing of the Hurricanes board, he is too young thrown into the Super rugby caldron and would probably benefit with a few more years cutting his teeth on the provincial scene or as an assistant coach at one of New Zealand’s franchises to gain more experience.

That essentially means the road to finding Cooper’s successor is a two-horse race. In the blue corner we have Hawke’s Bay’s Russell, while fighting out of the red corner, representing Manawatu, is Rennie.

Both  have worked their way up the ranks, crafted impressive track records and have the mana to do the job justice.

Lets run the comb over the two applicants, starting with Russell.

It’s fair to say this man possess the Midas touch judging by the polished, comprehensive and strong resume he a crafted over the years, something that will work in his favour.

Peter Russell

Peter Russell

He guided Marist St Pats to four Jubilee Cup finals appearances in the Wellington club competition, winning three titles in the process, and tasted NPC third division and Meads Cup success with Wairarapa-Bush in 2005 and 06 respectively.

There are also stints with the New Zealand Divisional/Heartland XV and as Glenn Moore’s assistant at the Highlanders, a role he will resume in the ‘Edinburgh of the South’ later this year.

But it is with Hawke’s Bay where Russell has shown his wares. In fact, there is much to like about how he has gone about his work with Hawkeye guys.

After stepping into the breach in 2007, Russell used his nous over the past three seasons to work wonders with a bunch of middle of the road players.

Indeed, three semi final appearances in three years, victories over Super 14 bases Waikato (four), Otago (twice), Auckland and Wellington, a fortress at McLean Park – which have become a graveyard for opposition teams – and a whole heap of Super 14 players is a good return and a throwback to the unions glory days of the 1920s and 60s.

He has also introduced and nurtured some future stars of New Zealand rugby during his time with the Magpies, with three of them – Zac Guildford, Bryn Evans and Hika Elliot – having gone on to wear the black jersey, while at leaste two others (Israel Dagg and Karl Lowe) are likely to do so in the future.

Dave Rennie

Like his counterpart, Rennie has also played an influential role in developing and unearthing future talent or ‘cattle’, a term he uses often to describe his playing stock, courtesy of his work at Murray Mexted’s International Rugby Academy and New Zealand under-20 side (read: Aaron Cruden, Andre Taylor, Kade Poki, Sean Maitland and Robbie Robinson, to name but a few).

The former Wellington midfielder has also helped Manawatu go from backwater status to a point where it is at least competitive in the ANZC after answering an SOS in 2006 at the eleventh hour.

While the Turbos have finished no higher than eleventh on the competition ladder, victories over Otago, Canterbury and Southland, a draw against Waikato and a close losses to Auckland and Hawke’s Bay in recent seasons show the team is far cry from the one that looked like it would struggle to score in a brothel (anyone remember that embarrassing effort against the British Lions in 2005?).

His résumé may not match that of Russell’s, but Rennie does have an NPC first division crown with Wellington to his name, not to mention back-to-back world championships with the New Zealand Under 20s. There was a spell as Hurricanes assistant coach in 2002, too.

But perhaps most importantly the 46-year-old has the support of the provinces and has shown he is not afraid to work his way up from the bottom again, something he did when he returned to his coaching roots (Upper Hutt Rugby Club) to take the under 21 side when his first foray into the top level stagnated.

So there you have it – two equally good mentors vying to become just the franchise’s fourth coach.

The successful applicant has an expectation to deliver. The Hurricanes region is overflowing with talent at the moment that a Super 14 title will not only be demanded, but also expected.

But something tells me the ‘Canes should be able to produce the goods if either of these two is given the nod.

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Leinster name Schmidt as new coach

FORMER Auckland Blues assistant Joe Schmidt has been named as coach of  Leinster, according to the Irish Times.

Schmidt (right) has been working as a backs coach for the past three years at Clermont Auvergne where, alongside fellow Kiwi Vern Cotter, he has guided the French Club to three consecutive Top 14 finals.

The 44-year-old signed a three-year deal with the defending Heineken Cup champions and will replace Australian Michael Cheika at the start of the 2010-11 season.

He is likely to be assisted at the Dublin-based club by compatriot and former All Black, Chiefs and Waikato loose forward Jonno Gibbes.

Schmit comes with a good track record, also helping the Blues win the Super 12 in 2003 and Bay of Plenty lift the Ranfurly Shield for the first time a year later. CLICK HERE to read more.