Gerry Thornley: Drop in standards is what signalled the end for Matt O’Connor
Australian has already been linked with the Queensland Reds
If Leinster had progressed in the Champions Cup against Toulon it’s unlikely this would have been the season’s outcome. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
When Leinster took the decision to release Matt O’Connor from his position as head coach with the province, they’d have done so with a heavy heart. The once-capped Australian was a very popular person within the playing squad and management, yet for an organisation which does not have a culture of coaches being let go before the end of their contract - previously only Gary Ella was technically removed by Leinster while under contract - it makes for a premature and disappointing end to his tenure.
The decision, when it came, appears to have been swift and mutual. The Leinster players and coaching staff received a group text on Wednesday night calling them to a meeting Thursday morning which informed them of O’Connor’s departure two years into his three-year contract. Virtually all were surprised and even a little saddened by the news. O’Connor has already been linked with the Queensland Reds, while their former head coach Ewen McKenzie has been installed as the early favourite to take over at Leinster by the bookies. However, a flood of bets resulted in McKenzie’s predecessor as Wallabies’ head coach, Robbie Deans, slashed from 17/2 to 1/4 favourite by Paddy Powers to become the Leinster’s next head coach.
McKenzie is now the joint second favourite at 15/2 with Les Kiss, followed by Conor O’Shea, Mark McCall and Fabien Galthie at 16/1. Surprisingly well down the list, along with Grenoble’s former Leinster hooker Bernard Jackman, is Jono Gibbes, who was Leinster’s forwards coach for all three of their Heineken Cups in his seven years there. Another who could enter the fray, perhaps as a backs coach alongside Gibbes, is Ronan O’Gara, given his working relationship for the last two years at Racing Metro with the homeward-bound Johnny Sexton.
There would have been an acceptance that O’Connor had a particularly tough challenge in following the golden three-year reign of Joe Schmidt which yielded four trophies. This was compounded too by the departure of the most important player in the Leinster set-up, namely Johnny Sexton, as well as the retirements of Brian O’Driscoll, Leo Cullen and, for the two years of O’Connor’s reign, Isa Nacewa.
Even back to full-strength, if one compares, say, the Leinster team which won the last of their three Heineken Cups in 2012 - a team which also fielded the hugely influential Brad Thorn - it is clearly not of the same quality. Yet odious comparisons with the Schmidt reign were inevitable, all the more so as Schmidt presided over back-to-back Six Nations’ titles with a core of Leinster players.
Therein, of course, lay another rub, for O’Connor complained increasingly loudly about the absence of so many front-liners, which in turn compounded a rash of injuries in the first half of the season. However, Schmidt and the IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora were moved to publicly dispute O’Connor’s assertion that the front-liners were not made available to him in all three of the games which immediately followed Ireland’s Six Nations’ success.
Instead, it was O’Connor’s decision to rest most of them for the pivotal defeat away to the Dragons which effectively scuppered Leinster’s defence of their Guinness Pro12 title, which came six days before their European Champions Cup semi-final defeat after extra time against Toulon in Marseille.
Again not helped by the fixture planning, Leinster were then obliged to pitch up in Belfast after a five-day turnaround for a defeat to Ulster which mathematically extinguished their League hopes, ending their season before the play-offs for the first time in the six seasons since their inception.
O’Connor’s worsening relationship with Nucifora and Schmidt would not have helped his cause when they would have had nothing to do with this decision, which Thursday’s statement by the province underlines what the players were informed, namely that O’Connor’s departure was a mutual decision by province and coach.
One wonders if it had come to this had Jimmy Gopperth’s late drop goal attempt against Toulon in that Champions Cup semi-final not missed by a whisker and thus had Leinster progressed to the final against Clermont in Twickenham two weeks’ later, regardless of whether they then won the final or not. Indeed, for the second running, Leinster had lost away to the eventual winners after a quarter-final defeat in Toulon last season.
In this, O’Connor was unlucky, and he maintained that when close to full-strength Leinster could compete with anybody under his watch. Yet the squad’s League performances was arguably a more reliable barometer of their progress, or lack of it, under O’Connor.
In particular, Leinster’s performances and results tapered off in the November and Six Nations’ test windows, especially during the latter when a record of one win in six matches contrasted damningly with results over the same period in the previous five seasons and effectively did for their League campaign. It suggested that O’Connor was not maximising the ability of his squad, and fringe players especially.
It’s worth re-asserting that only three of the starting XV which beat Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final were available to O’Connor for the opening games of this season’ Heineken Cup against Wasps and Castres, and Leinster were without their two primary ball carriers in Cian Healy (for all but three league games in September) and Sean O’Brien, until after the Six Nations.
Even so, in a League where realistically only five teams, maybe six at a push, were credible contenders to win the title, Leinster finished fifth and seven points outside the top four. It was their worst league finish since finishing eighth in 2003-04.
O’Connor had been hired from Leicester, with whom Leinster have always had a shared sense of themselves, as a like for like replacement for Schmidt - a backs coach being promoted to head coach who could emulate the expansive style of player under his predecessor.
Hence, as much as the results, it was the performances and lack of identity and creativity which would have alarmed the Leinster decision-makers. This in turn led to deep unrest with many Leinster fans, who have been making clear their desire to have him removed. Many will have welcomed his departure.
With some vindication, O’Connor evidently came to the conclusion that Gopperth was his preferred choice to manage games from out-half, but that Ian Madigan was the more reliable goal-kicker. Ben Te’o has shown signs that he will be a very good signing by O’Connor, but in the absence of Gordon D’Arcy and O’Driscoll, the midfield balance was never quite right. This was compounded by injuries out wide and Zane Kirchener’s loss of form from the high point of his and O’Connor’s time at Leinster, namely the Pro12 final defeat of Glasgow at the RDS last season, when the Springbok winger cum full-back scored two of Leinster’s four tries in a man of the match performance.
Furthermore, standards in Leinster’s defence slipped, and they became particularly porous in the games before producing that mighty effort against Toulon. In this regard, popular and likeable person though he was, there was a sense that O’Connor was not exacting enough in his reviews of performances and on the training ground. While one-off performances such as those aforementioned ones against Glasgow and Toulon appeared to demonstrate that O’Connor was effective in coming up with tactical plans for specific games, the drop in standards contributed to the end of his reign more than anything else.
He and his wife Jo, and their kids Sara, 17, who attends St Andrew’s, Harry, 13, and Ryan, 11, who are in Blackrock, will now presumably have too move on as O’Connor seeks new coaching pastures, perhaps in Queensland. Such is the volatility of O’Connor’s profession.