O’Connor has to oversee passing of golden generation and stay winning
It’s a tall order but the Leinster head coach thrives on high expectations
Matt O’Connor: ‘The expectation drives the environment to be good, and it’s easier than the alternative’. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
It’s the kind of job most ambitious coaches would crave. A high-achieving, trophy-garlanded, well-run, capital city club with an academy churning out young talent. Against that, there’s been the Joe Schmidt era. Follow that? Matt O’Connor takes a sanguine view.
“The expectation, and I’ve said it a lot since I’ve arrived, is a good thing. You’d much prefer it than to be coaching where the expectation wasn’t such. The expectation drives the environment to be good, and it’s easier than the alternative. It’s not pressurised in that regard because you back yourself to be good and you back the boys in the environment to be good.”
While he’s from Australia, O’Connor would like to think he has something else going for him in that he comes here via four years as head coach to Richard Cockerill’s director of rugby at Leicester.
“It’s a tough job if you’re new to the Northern Hemisphere and new to that level of expectation. It’s probably too tough a job. But off the back of the environment I’ve come out of, and the expectation that existed in that environment, and understanding better than most the ins and outs of European rugby, it’s a little bit easier.”
O’Connor likes to buy into the culture, put down roots and stay a while. But he doesn’t like to outstay his welcome and, while not in a rush about it, he is ambitious and has self-belief without being remotely cocky. He’s also his own man.
He left the ACT Brumbies in 2008 after four seasons as assistant coach when passed over for the job to succeed Laurie Fisher. “I missed out on the top job at the Brumbies that I thought I would get and probably thought I deserved to get, so at that point it was time for a new challenge.”
He then had five richly enjoyable years at Leicester.
Timing was perfect
“Everybody presumed we would be there for another 12 months without the piece of paper being signed. When Ireland came in for Joe and Leinster let him go the timing was perfect from our perspective.”
His wife Jo and their three kids, Sara (16), Harry (12) and Ryan (10) are already settled in Dublin, with Sara in St Andrews and the boys in Willow.
O’Connor accepts the limited “windows” for training mean he and his staff have to be smart in using that time effectively and without being too radical. They are “nowhere near” where they want to be.
It’s no secret O’Connor has sought to improve Leinster’s line speed in defence, so as to increase turnovers and reduce the defensive workload.
As regards Leinster’s game with the ball, O’Connor says: “There’s probably a little bit more shape, although it probably hasn’t been seen yet, but there’s probably more emphasis on using the ball and deception, as opposed to recycling quickly and beating teams around the corner. That’s evolving. It’s not right or wrong. It’s a matter of using what’s been there before, what the players know, what they deliver on really well, and just getting a little bit more balance in relation to that.”