The start of the next four year cycle building up to the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France is gathering momentum to the view that the Guinness PRO 14 has become a final transit point for club and provincial coaches set for a bigger stage.
Dave Rennie (Australia), Wayne Pivac (Wales) and Franco Smith (Italy) are among the international head coaching debutants we will see heading up national teams when the 2020 rugby year rolls into view. All three of them head into the Test arena directly from the PRO 14, just as Rassie Erasmus, Joe Schmidt, Gregor Townsend and others did before them.
Rennie is of course the headline act. When Michael Cheika, who himself coached Leinster in the PRO 14 when it was still the PRO 12, resigned in the aftermath of the Wallabies defeat to England in their World Cup quarterfinal, there was intense focus on who would replace him in one of the top jobs in world rugby.
Australia didn’t waste too much time in naming Cheika’s replacement. While the New Zealand succession plan that has been so admired by other nations has become mired in a process that some consider a bit drawn out, Rennie is now ensconced as the Wallabies’ second Kiwi coach. Former successful Crusaders coach and All Black assistant Robbie Deans was the first.
While Rennie spent several years coaching the New Zealand franchise, the Chiefs, in Super Rugby, like Erasmus before him he would have considered his stint as head coach of Glasgow Warriors as a form of finishing school for the Wallaby job. The PRO 14, as World Cup winning Springbok coach Erasmus said during the tournament, offers a diversity of opponent and conditions that you don’t get in any other provincial, regional or club competition.
A two time Super Rugby winner with the Chiefs, Rennie moved to Scotland at the start of the 2017/2018 season. He never quite matched the success of his predecessor, Gregor Townsend, himself now an international coach with Scotland, by winning the PRO 14, but then it is hard to keep Leinster away from silverware in their current form. Glasgow did make the 2018/2019 final under Rennie after displaying imperious form for most of the league phase of the season, and a record crowd for PRO 14 saw Leinster pip them in the final at Celtic Park.
The year before that Rennie’s team were beaten in the semi-final by Scarlets, who happened to be coached by someone he will lock horns with now on the international stage - Pivac. Another New Zealander, Pivac was announced over a year ago as the successor to Warren Gatland as head coach of Wales, which is why Pivac has moved on from the Scarlets, who he famously coached to the PRO 14 title in 2017.
Former Springbok player and assistant coach Smith was announced six days ago as the Italy interim coach, although he made the decision to leave the Toyota Cheetahs in mid-year he made it clear it was to take up the lead role with the Six Nations team on a more permanent basis.
Smith of course has a long history in the PRO 14, first with Italian team Treviso between 2007 and 2013, and latterly as the director of rugby and head coach of the Cheetahs team he was playing for when he was first selected for the Boks under the coaching of Nick Mallett in 1997.
With Jacques Nienaber, who coached with Erasmus at Munster, likely to take over the head coach role with the Boks, but director of rugby Erasmus still set to stay on as the chief honcho who calls the shots, several of next year’s international battles will be fought by coaches who got to know each other well when pitting their wits against each other in the PRO 14.