Matt O’Connor knows value of being in control

Leinster coach hopes to have Brian O’Driscoll around after playing days

Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Windsor share a laugh at Leinster training in UCD. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Brian O’Driscoll and Sam Windsor share a laugh at Leinster training in UCD. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Wed, May 28, 2014, 01:00

Professional sports folk love controlling those pesky controllables. It’s, like, their thing. So when Matt O’Connor was presented with a number of uncontrollables on arrival in Dublin last summer one long Australian exhale must have followed.

Uncontrollable number one was Brian O’Driscoll. The Greatest was leaving and after Warren Gatland’s treatment of him during the Lions Test series nobody connected with Irish rugby was going to deny him the opportunity to depart on his own terms.

Blow after blow was shipped, but the visible rewards came for Leinster in Franklin’s Gardens and for Ireland with that beautifully suspended moment in time when Italy visited Dublin last March.

Somehow O’Driscoll’s body made it to the predetermined ending of the story. It helps that not a single Leinster player has been officially concussed since John Fogarty’s retirement in 2010.

‘Physical output’
“When I took the job and sat down with Brian we knew that relative to what he was going to have to deliver on this year we would have to manage his time and his physical output,” said O’Connor. “From that end I was very, very comfortable that we could work on the transition post-Brian with Brian in the environment.

“That was always a much bigger positive than having to deal with post-Brian without Brian in the environment.

“So from that end it’s been fantastic to be associated with him. He still has that burning desire to be very, very good every single day . . . and that’s why he’s still playing very, very good footie.”

O’Driscoll recently made it seem possible that Leinster might begin the post-Brian era with Brian still in the environment. “Well he’s just around the corner, so who knows?” Challenging issue A far more challenging issue in O’Connor’s first season as coach of a club crowned European champions three times since 2009, which had just lost two of its best ever players, was his predecessor selecting every single frontrower on Leinster’s roster, most of the backrowers and nearly all the backs.

Then the Springboks waved IRB regulation nine in O’Connor’s face and Zane Kirchner was gone for November.

The hope for next year is that Ulster, Munster and Connacht players impress Joe Schmidt enough to give O’Connor more control of his controllables.

“I jolly well hope so. The biggest challenge has been the lack of combination that we have been able to develop week on week with so many blokes out of the environment and, regardless of how many Ireland take next year – and they can’t physically take any more – we are not going to be in a worse place.”

The other major problem, yet to be solved and may not be until Jonathan Sexton is lured back from his Parisian exile. O’Connor made it clear in October that Jimmy Gopperth, the veteran Kiwi outhalf signed as cover when Sexton departed was his preferred choice at outhalf over Ian Madigan.

That lessened his control as Ireland needed Madigan to be playing like Paddy Jackson was in Ulster and Ian Keatley in Munster.

O’Connor, yesterday, provided some welcome insight into this ongoing conundrum. The context being Madigan’s magnificent cameos, like the recent try against Ulster.

“We probably haven’t seen enough of those glimpses from Ian, whether from off the bench or when he has started for whatever reason. He is a very good footballer. We have the luxury of a bloke as good as Jimmy and a bloke as good as Ian in the 23 to play their part in the game.”

But he agreed that controlling those controllables is easier when your halfbacks are cemented into the team sheet.

“I historically wouldn’t have favoured that approach. I would like to pick a nine and 10 and they are your blokes but every circumstance is different.”

The problem is there wasn’t time to gift Madigan the space Ulster could with Jackson riding shotgun to Ruan Pienaar.

“No, I think it’s the fact that [Madigan’s]now the first choice 10 and with that goes a hell of a lot of scrutiny from the opposition. And that means your game has to be incredibly tidy . . . So if that’s Jimmy starting well then he has to deal with that pressure, if that’s Ian starting well then he has to understand that he is the focal point for the opposition.”

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