One more backward step and Matt O’ Connor disappears off the cliff.
An Australian walks into a plum job and two years later still doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s it, no joke or punchline here, simply a statement of fact pertaining to the general perception of Leinster coach, Matt O’ Connor.
O’ Connor’s reign over the eastern province has been nothing if not peculiar. He took over the reins from Joe Schmidt in 2013 – a poisoned chalice if ever there was one – and in his first season in charge led the side to the Pro 12 title and a quarter-final exit from Europe at the hands of Toulon, who themselves were en route to back- to -back Heineken Cup titles. Now, by anyone’s calculations this represents a more than honest day’s work at the office. But there have been rumblings of discontent from Leinster fans for quite some time now. Initially, the disenchantment appeared as a side-effect of the comedown from the phenomenally successful Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt eras. It was only natural that Leinster fans would react as such- remember there were more than a few murmurs when Joe Schmidt lost a whopping three games in a row at the start of his Leinster tenure. And, don’t think Munster fans didn’t grumble after the Declan Kidney glory days. Or that a certain column didn’t decry Louis Van Gaal a mere eight months into his first season with Manchester United. However, one year on and with silverware in the bag, the Australian remains largely unpopular with the Leinster faithful. The criticism is based, seemingly, not just on a lack of success- how relative a term- but more on a lack of a discernible game plan for players to implement and for supporters to actually recognise.
Purely entertaining teams throw the ball around all the time. And win nothing. Cheika was the first in the long line of Leinster coaches to figure this out and, more importantly, bring his charges around to this way of thinking. Schmidt followed with his now famously disciplined defensive system where players simply dare not miss and every man is publicly –amongst his peers at least- made accountable for any errors made on his behalf. O’ Connor knew what he needed to focus on immediately upon his arrival – remember he came from the pragmatic Leicester Tigers- and to his credit Leinster were defensively excellent last year conceding just thirty tries in the Pro 12. Incidentally, this total is almost bang on par with what Schmidt and Cheika sides conceded in the Pro-12. This year, however, things have gotten progressively worse and just a fortnight ago Bath, led by the wonderfully talented George Ford –behemoth runners need not always apply- cut the formerly vaunted Leinster midfield to absolute shreds. Leinster won though, based on a powerful forward performance and a faultless kicking display by the enigmatic Ian Madigan. So, just step back for a moment and think about it, Leinster are into the last four in Europe for the first time in three years and for our money have a great shot at an upset on Sunday. That’s not an awful season by any stretch. The problem though is that as the defensive foundations have crumbled the offense has crashed down in its wake.
Before we put O’ Connor in the stocks, how about we have a balanced look at his tenure and indeed the run-up to his appointment. We know luck is by its very nature completely random, and thus unquantifiable, but O’ Connor hasn’t been blessed with it. Before he even arrived in 2013 it was announced that Europe’s premier out-half Jonathon Sexton was off to Racing-Metro. Next man down? Just Isa Nacewa –who makes a welcome if unexpected return next year- arguably the greatest ever international export into the Irish provincial game. That leads us to last season where the Australian lost, not only captain Leo Cullen, but the greatest player Irish rugby has ever seen, Brian O’ Driscoll. So, to tally that, Leinster lost three of their four best players and their totemic captain in just two years. By no means are we O’ Connor apologists- it’s hard to get behind a grumpy Australian who blames all his woes on everyone else. Nonetheless, what we suggest is an objective look at the hand he has been dealt. His new signing in the centre, to ostensibly replace the once-off O’ Driscoll, Ben T’eo, is a rugby league convert who will need time to adapt in defence in this form of the game. And, before people criticise O’ Connor for signing the former South Sydney Rabbitoh, remember that it’s difficult to find a readily available, top- class centre in a World Cup year.
Now, however, to perhaps O’ Connor’s greatest sin, the failure to ignite a backline that includes at various times three Lions, eight Six Nations winners, a South African international and, Jimmy Gopperth. Ok, perhaps we’re being harsh on Gopperth but you can’t expect a backline to wreak havoc when you’re receiving the ball back in your own garden. Murray Kinsella provides an excellent analysis of where Leinster seem to be doing it wrong and how they can improve and it’s not just Gopperth who fails to shine. Ian Madigan has had his moments this season, but O’ Connor seems stubbornly opposed to dropping Wasps bound stand-off, Gopperth. Also, constantly looming over the Australian is the fact that Jonny Sexton will be back on these shores next year, and naturally will be a lock to play at number ten. So is it really a poor decision for O’ Connor to play Madigan at first centre, particularly if the latter intends to stay at Leinster? The real problem for O’ Connor right now is that he’s playing a game of poker where the stakes are phenomenally high and his stack of chips is diminishing rapidly. By sticking with Madigan at twelve, he’s putting his eggs in next season’s basket when Sexton will operate inside the younger man. However, if the triple-European champions get badly defeated on Sunday O’ Connor probably won’t be the man in the Leinster hot seat next year.
You feel the Leinster bed still hasn’t been made this season and no one really wants to sleep in it. A win on Sunday for them will clearly be perceived as the players taking matters into their hands – as with France and England in the past two World Cup Finals- while a loss, and specifically a bad one, will be the fault of an aimless coach failing to implement, or indeed identify, a game-plan over two seasons. Leinster have stuttered and stumbled their way into this weekend’s inaugural Champions Cup semi-final against two time reigning European Champions Toulon. Luckily for them so have the French side. Given the horrible run of form which Leinster have endured of late, all realistic hope –we use the words lightly- of silverware will rest on unlikely victories over the champions and most likely, the red-hot, perennial bridesmaids, Clermont Auvergne. Expect Leinster, littered with the type of talent most others could only dream of, to let the shackles off, whether directed to or not. The goods things from the Bath game- a dominant pack and excellent scrum- need to be married to intelligent offloads and a willingness to go from deep when the opportunity presents itself. Like most French sides Toulon don’t like when a visiting team puts it up to them so Leinster need to get into them early, even if it means blurring the lines between what’s legal and what’s not.
True, Toulon are looking for three-in-a-row but this is not the juggernaut of last year and, while the visitors are minus O’ Driscoll, the champions no longer have the services of the indescribably, important Johnny Wilkinson. Further, the game will be played, not in their Stade Mayol bear pit but in Marseille – where an arguably inferior Munster side ran the champions extremely close last year- which means home advantage is diminished. The visitors are better than we think while we’re not entirely sure what to make of the champions. As poor as Toulon were two weeks ago, you sense Wasps –definitely an inferior side to Leinster- may have angered a dozing giant in the quarter final, running their hosts far closer than anyone expected.
Victory here for Leinster will mean O’ Connor remains an Irish taxpayer for at least another year, even if his players get all the credit. We don’t think Leinster will die wondering on Sunday but with such a lack of certainty and continuity – even still no one knows the strongest team this deep in the season- we think this one will be a bridge too far. One perhaps for the moral victory category, but that may not be enough for the under-fire O’ Connor.
Toulon by 4 (Toulon generally -11)