War of words with Joe Schmidt proves fatal for Matt O'Connor
Published 22/05/2015 | 02:30
In the build-up to Leinster's Champions Cup clash against Harlequins last December, Matt O'Connor turned the tables on the media and asked: "Just a question for you blokes, how do you categorise form? Is it winning games? Is it scoring tries? We've scored the most tries in the League. I'm asking the question. What's form to you blokes? Because you ask about it a lot."
It was a defiant act from a passionate coach and it led to a heated debate over the criticism of his team's performances so far in the campaign involving the assembled journalists and his captain Jamie Heaslip.
The following Sunday, Leinster lost to Harlequins.
All season, O'Connor has received the backing of a group of players who were left stunned when they were informed of the decision to sack him yesterday. Unfortunately, they could never back up their words with a performance strong enough to save their coach's job.
Having reached a European semi-final, losing to Toulon in France after a tight game that went to extra-time and could have gone either way, they might have felt entitled to another crack. Johnny Sexton is coming back, as is Isa Nacewa, but the influential Professional Games Board felt differently and, reflecting on a disappointing Pro12 performance and worried about ticket sales, they opted to say goodbye.
Around the time of the Marseille defeat, O'Connor was quizzed about his decision to rest players a week previously against Dragons.
His second string had thrown away a lead at Rodney Parade that would ultimately cost them a play-off place, a result that summed up a dreadful league campaign that would render the three-time champions lower seeds in next year's Champions Cup.
The Australian broke the glass and went for the emergency option, criticising the restrictions placed upon him by the IRFU's player management system. He repeated his lament days later.
That didn't go down well on Lansdowne Road, where O'Connor's predecessor Joe Schmidt called a press conference of his own and dismissed the Leinster coach's claims, undermining his authority as he did.
"I have been there," Schmidt said. "If I went back to the last World Cup period where Leinster contributed far more players to the World Cup squad than anyone else, then you do feel stressed during that time. And during that time I think we won four from six games, we ended up topping the League by 10 points.
"It's a challenge for provincial coaches to get the best out of their teams all the time when you don't always have the top players available.
"Through the Six Nations period, Leinster got 18 out of 20 available points, last year they got 19 out of 20 available points, this year they got nine out of 20 available points.
"If you look at the teams that were put out through those three years those teams are very similar and have international experience, with guys who have been internationally capped. I think from that perspective the system isn't broken and we're trying to refine it every quarter."
Once Schmidt had spoken, O'Connor's authority had been undermined and when defeat to Ulster was followed by an insipid performance against Treviso, the tide turned. Taking on a room full of journalists is one thing, taking on the formidable might of the national coach is another.
There is nothing to suggest that the IRFU had a hand in O'Connor's dismissal, but his presence has hung over his successor since the moment he was appointed.
Whatever about Alex Ferguson haunting the corridors and stands of Old Trafford when David Moyes was foundering as Manchester United boss, O'Connor had to watch his players head off to spend time with the province's most successful coach three times a season.
That might have been manageable but for the contrast in achievement between the two teams. As Ireland improved immeasurably under Schmidt, claiming worldwide acclaim and a pair of Six Nations titles, Leinster appeared to decline under his successor.
O'Connor's players always talked up his game-plan, but appeared far more comfortable in Schmidt's.
Despite reaching a European quarter-final and retaining the Pro12, the performances failed to inspire on a regular basis but the victories over Northampton and Glasgow in the final suggested at a potential improvement.
That never came, however, as Leinster made hard work of a supremely manageable Champions Cup pool before beating Bath in uninspiring circumstances in the quarter-final. Their rousing display against Toulon might have bought him some time, but the league performances undermined any progress.
A draw in Treviso, back-to-back defeats to the Dragons and derby losses to Munster and Connacht suggested Leinster's depth was not what it should be, but when players were asked about their coach they refused to point the finger.
Shane Jennings' criticism of a lack of leadership within the squad was pointed and it would be unfair to judge O'Connor's time in charge without taking into account the big-name departures and high-profile retirements that occurred before or during his tenure. Throw in some badly timed injuries and he could argue he never had a proper crack at it. Recruitment has been a problem, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner have not lived up to their predecessors' consistent performances, while this year's big-name signings Kane Douglas and Ben Te'o have not had the desired impact for different reasons.
After a first season when he introduced Rhys Ruddock and Noel Reid to the starting team, O'Connor stopped trusting the Academy players and preferred Ulster Bank League graduates like Darragh Fanning and Mick McGrath.
All the while, the terraces turned against the affable Australian. Leinster fans have grown used to trophies being delivered in a certain style and weren't happy.
At the same time, he grew increasingly chippy in his media dealings and continued to overuse management speak rather than address valid issues.
On paper, his record was far from disastrous. O'Connor won two-thirds of his games, reaching the knockout stages Europe twice and Leinster were unfortunate to meet Toulon away on both occasions. He won the Pro12, but failed to follow it up.
Performances rarely matched that record, however. The game-plan was hard to discern and even the defensive improvements were reversed this season at an alarming rate. Taking over from Schmidt was never going to be easy. Having his predecessor lurking over his shoulder made life even more difficult.
Ultimately, the Professional Games Board met earlier this week and informed O'Connor on Tuesday that his time was up. He will have further opportunities and will continue to be a good coach, but the Leinster gig proved to be the wrong job at the wrong time.