Alan Quinlan: O’Connor’s successor facing an even tougher task
New incumbent will be without between 14 and 20 players during the World Cup
Matt O’Connor with his former charges. The low point, ironically, was a victory over Benetton Treviso at the RDS. Leinster had become almost unwatchable. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
I must admit to being slightly sceptical at the robust and uniform manner in which the Leinster players defended Matt O’Connor over the past season.
That’s not to cast any aspersions on his ability as a coach or as a person, both of which I believe to be of a high calibre. But it’s rather the inescapable fact that professional sportsmen are by inclination selfish and subjective.
If a player is consistently not picked by a coach or only gets sporadic game time there is no way that he’s going to remain philosophical about his circumstances indefinitely. After all this is a player’s livelihood and denied a shop window to showcase his talent it will impact on his value when it comes to negotiating or renegotiating a contract.
There is also the fact that players quite simply want to play. You’d want to be quite mad to undertake the regimen of a professional sportsperson and be satisfied with the odd game here and there.
So within the Leinster squad there would have been players for whom frustration would have built over the season just gone.
They wouldn’t be overtly critical because that wouldn’t be tolerated by the group. Privately though, they might express a different view to friends and family. A winning culture camouflages a multitude but when a team is underperforming it is natural, if you are a player on the outside of the match squad looking in, to believe that you can make a difference.
So there will be a number of players who will view O’Connor’s departure as potentially having a positive impact on their circumstances. It’s important to clarify here that the Australian was a popular figure amongst the squad and respected within the group as a training ground coach; as the saying goes, ‘it’s not personal, it’s business’.
Some players would also have been fretful about holding down their place in the national squad. If you’re in a team that’s struggling for rhythm in performance and results in the league, it’s a pretty rocky platform for your ambitions.
Good copRichard Cockerill
O’Connor’s immediate predecessors as Leinster coach, Joe Schmidt and Michael Cheika, both possessed a steely core. O’Connor didn’t appear to be as tough a taskmaster and that was possibly a quality he needed during what was a difficult season.
Leinster lost senior, highly influential figures last summer, suffered a raft of injuries and were the biggest single contributors to the Ireland squad. They also altered their style of play, adopting a more kicking orientated game that was a fundamental change to the more swashbuckling patterns of previous coaching tenures.
To survive that transition, a coach needs results to go their way, a little bit of luck and for the senior players and leaders to help drive the group on the pitch. I thought it instructive that Shane Jennings made the point in the wake of O’Connor’s departure that the playing group had to accept they had not set and met the same standards of previous campaigns.
Was O’Connor’s biggest downfall that he was too nice? It appears to have been a factor. There are times when players need the stick. A coach has to have gears vocally in terms of getting the best out of his charges. It’s not about ranting and raving all the time because players will just tune out but occasionally the velvet glove has to be removed to reveal the iron fist.
People talk about the long shadow that Schmidt cast given the success he enjoyed as first Leinster coach and then with Ireland in winning back-to-back Six Nations Championships. He managed this with contrasting styles – the derring-do of Leinster’s European triumphs against a more pragmatic approach with the national side. He cut his cloth but it was made to measure in getting the results.
O’Connor understood the expectation when he took the job. The bar was set very high, there was huge pressure to maintain the conveyor belt of silverware and he did this in his first season in winning the Pro12 title and reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup before losing to the eventual winners Toulon.
Leinster came within a whisker of beating Toulon in a Champions Cup semi-final this season but their form domestically was the complete antithesis; eight defeats and three draws. The supporters became increasingly frustrated not just by the loss of matches but the sterile nature of some of the displays.
The low point, ironically, was a victory over Benetton Treviso at the RDS. Leinster had become almost unwatchable and I believe that was the death knell in terms of his reign. There was also a criticism of the lack of players coming through from the Leinster academy, one heralded as among the best in the world.
The presence of a handful of those academy youngsters in the Ireland squad for the Barbarians match on Thursday night, even allowing for the absence of Munster and Connacht players, doesn’t so much speak, as scream out.
The Leinster executive weighed up the road travelled over two years during O’Connor’s tenure and where they might be in 12 months’ time. They decided that it was time for a three point turn. The Australian didn’t deliver and he’ll have to take it on the chin. I don’t doubt his coaching credentials or that he’ll make a success of his next position.
His successor, whoever that is, arguably faces an even tougher task. The return of Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa are significant pluses but the new coach faces potentially six Guinness Pro12 matches prior to and during the Rugby World Cup without somewhere between 14 and 20 players. He won’t be able to make any signings for a year at least and will have to quickly appraise himself of the young talent within the province.
He will have to lean on the current coaching staff for some guidance, unless of course he’s previously been at the province. He’ll certainly know a lot more about his playing group come next November. That’s assuming Leinster make the appointment by then.
Leo Cullen has been left in charge of team affairs and with the possibility that a number of high-profile coaches could step down after the World Cup the province might be inclined to wait. They’ll want a head coach with a proven record this time.