Matt O’Connor could never escape long shadow of Joe Schmidt

Leinster fans glad to see coach gone have been spoilt by golden generation of players

Matt O’Connor was popular among the players but he must have felt like David Moyes as Leinster season went awry. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Matt O’Connor was popular among the players but he must have felt like David Moyes as Leinster season went awry. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

Akin to David Moyes replacing Alex Ferguson, succeeding Joe Schmidt at Leinster was always going to be the toughest of acts to follow. Next man in, à la Louis van Gaal, always appeared the more promising scenario, although unlike van Gaal, the next head coach at Leinster will not have a fat cheque book to enlarge his squad.

Instead, he will inherit the existing playing squad, with Leinster’s signings for next season all done. Furthermore, unlike rivals in European club rugby, Leinster and their fellow Irish provinces operate in much more restrictive circumstances both financially and in the number of foreign players they are permitted.

Leinster are one of the four branches of the Irish Rugby Football Union and, arguably more than ever before, exist primarily to facilitate Team Ireland. In that respect, Leinster have performed particularly well, being bulk suppliers to Ireland’s back-to-back Six Nations titles. Therein lies another rub, for that is unlikely to change any time soon given next season features a World Cup and a Six Nations.

Predecessor Although Sir Alex could be regularly picked out by the cameras at Old Trafford, unlike

Moyes, Matt O’Connor actually had to work under his predecessor, so to speak.

Despite Leinster retaining the Pro12 title last season, those back-to-back Six Nations’ titles – achieved with a strong core of Leinster players – maintained unflattering comparisons between the two coaches in the eyes of many Leinster fans. Schmidt’s brilliance has assuredly maximised the talent at his disposal, in contrast to the situation in France especially, or Wales and even possibly England (certainly in terms of strength in depth and physical size).

When Leinster had the misfortune to be drawn away to Toulon in the European Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille, having lost away to the same eventual winners in the quarter-finals a year previously, the nouveau riche French champions had just four French players in their starting line-up, of which only three had featured in the Six Nations, while two more subs had appeared in one game apiece.

By contrast, Leinster fielded 13 Irish-qualified players in their starting line-up and 20 in their match-day 23, of whom 14 had played in the Six Nations, including eight ever-presents in Ireland’s five games which had concluded so dramatically just two weeks earlier. Clearly, compressing the European Cup knock-out stages in fortnightly intervals after the Six Nations inconvenienced Toulon far less than Leinster.

None of this would have cut much ice with the many Leinster fans who became disaffected with the team’s performances, which tapered off alarmingly in the second half of the season. These incorporated home and away defeats to both Munster and the Dragons, before the team said a relatively premature RDS seasonal farewell with a dismal 10-0 win over Treviso, as Leinster finished seven points outside the top four – their worst league performance since finishing eighth in 2003-04.

Leinster last week announced that season ticket sales had passed the 10,000 mark, but three seasons ago they are believed to have been well above that – evidence of a discontent amongst Leinster supporters that must have alarmed the province’s Professional Games Board (PGB).

No less than Munster with their triumphs in 2006 and ’08, Leinster fans have been spoilt by the success of a truly golden generation. Even without the advent of millionaire benefactors and enhanced television deals due to the emergence of BT and beIN Sport in the UK and France, the run of three Heineken Cups in five seasons was never going to be repeated.

As with the likes of Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, Alan Quinlan, David Wallace, Anthony Foley, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara et al at Munster, it’s doubtful that Leinster have produced better players in their positions than Johnny Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy, Brian O’Driscoll and Isa Nacewa – or indeed would ever sign a more influential lock than Brad Thorn.

Passing of an era

Yes, they will have Sexton and Nacewa back, but on foot of finishing fifth in the league, they are also liable to have a third seeding and thus a tough European Champions Cup draw when it is made in the middle of next month. What’s more, if Ireland make it to the final weekend, after four warm-up games and up to seven matches in the World Cup, the new Leinster coach will then face into his first European Champions Cup game a fortnight later.

O’Connor’s two-year reign may at least have dampened expectations, but as the disgruntlement of their fan base and the decision of the PGB highlights, a province still expects.

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