Leinster in a tricky position after injuries and retirements strip them of a wealth of experience
Matt O’Connor could really have done with a win against Munster to relieve the pressure
Leinster’s Jimmy Gopperth is tackled by Munster’s Andrew Smith and Paul O’Connell during the recent clash at the Aviva Stadium. ‘Choosing Gopperth over Madigan is a conservative route to go down, in my opinion.’ Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Leinster have been so good for so long it’s only natural any bit of a wobble will make people wonder are they in trouble. Nothing causes supporters to lose patience quicker than the high expectations built up by years of success.
So maybe it’s no surprise this is the time of year when the most questions have been asked about them. The slower the start, the worse people worry.
Go back to when Joe Schmidt took over – they suffered a few losses early on and the doubts were there.
It didn’t quite get to panic stations but because he was just starting off and nobody knew what to expect, you could feel that bit of uneasiness in the air. It wasn’t until the win over Munster just ahead of the start of that season’s Heineken Cup that everyone relaxed.
Matt O’Connor’s life would be a lot simpler if Leinster had managed to beat Munster this time around.
In the mix
And nobody really thinks they won’t turn it around eventually to be in the mix later on in the season.
But still, there are doubts hanging around this Leinster team. We don’t know for sure how good they are yet.
We can’t tell yet if they’ve been able to deal with the loss of experience and know-how that they’ve had to deal with through the recent retirements and injuries.
If you take the team that last won the Heineken Cup, they’re starting this European campaign without Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy.
At the time, those four were among the best players in the world in their position. Take four world-class players out of any team and you’re bound to suffer. That’s before you also take away Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen, Brad Thorn and Fergus McFadden who also started that day.
Any way you look at it, Leinster are starting this campaign in nothing like the shape they’ve started others.
It’s not just the loss of talent. It’s the loss of presence. There is a different atmosphere around the place when your top internationals are in the group. These few weeks are usually the first time where everyone is together and there’s a real sense of unity and purpose.
That first team meeting when everybody is back ignites the place. This is what the season is about.
And it doesn’t matter how strong your coach is, in any team in the world it’s the senior players who run the dressingroom.
They just assume their position at the forefront of things – they’re the most vocal, the most confident, the most driven in their mentality.
Everything follows on from that. The younger guys, the guys who haven’t been capped yet or who’ve been in and around the fringes of the international squad, they take their lead from the senior guys. Partly, they’re envious. They’re itching to be in that position themselves. But partly as well, they’re looking to be led.
Leadership is an attribute that not everybody has and it can be hard to define. Sometimes, you just know it when you see it. When I was starting out, nobody would have said Peter Clohessy was the best trainer we knew, or the best athlete or the best professional. He was none of those things. But he was one of the best leaders any of us ever came across.
A lot of us were young, a lot of us hadn’t a clue what to expect, especially when it came to playing in Europe. But when we looked at Claw, we saw a guy who just did not give a damn where he was playing or who the opposition were.
Everybody is that bit more experienced now and Europe isn’t such a journey into the unknown. But you still have younger guys in each dressingroom who need to be led.
Somebody like Darragh Fanning could be playing his first European Cup game on Sunday. There’s still going to be a fair bit of experience in the team around him but just not as much as Leinster would like.
In fairness to Leinster, I think they’ve been better prepared for their transition than Munster were. They had more coming through their academy and they’ve been able to cushion the blow and take injuries a bit better.
Players have been developed over the past few years, internationals ready to come in and cover. When you’re able to replace O’Brien and Healy with Rhys Ruddock and Jack McGrath, you’re not in too bad a position.
Even so, coach Matt O’Connor is in a tricky place.
Leinster haven’t been in contention for the big European prize for two seasons in a row. He won the Pro12 in his first season but I think most people pretty much expect that as the least he can do.
That’s a very high standard to have to meet and it’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent even at this early stage of the season.
O’Connor is his own man. The easiest thing for him to do last season would have been to play Ian Madigan at 10 – it would have played to the crowd and it would have played to the media.
But he went with Jimmy Gopperth instead. He went with experience and physicality. I didn’t agree with his choice – and I still think Madigan would be a better choice at outhalf – but you have to admire a guy who makes a big unpopular call and sticks by it.
But I do think that it all feeds into a change in emphasis that could be worrying for Leinster. Choosing Gopperth over Madigan is a conservative route to go down, in my opinion.
And when the squad is hit by such a huge glut of injuries as they have been, then you’re having to go deeper and deeper into your extended squad and that brings with it a certain level of conservatism as well.
I expect Leinster to come through it because they have enough strength in depth and enough good players and decision makers.
But after years of not having to prove anything to anybody, this feels a bit different.
It feels like they have to prove it all over again – to themselves as much as anything.