Saturday 23 September 2017

Neil Francis: Matt O'Connor simply wasn't good enough, but did Joe Schmidt give the P45?

Joe Schmidt wants to win the World Cup this year and he has a real chance
Joe Schmidt wants to win the World Cup this year and he has a real chance
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The question is: who fired Matt O’Connor?

There were suggestions that the coach had had enough himself and he saw that Richard Graham wasn’t going to keep his job at the Queensland Reds and so a jump now would suit everyone. Plausible, but unlikely. The Professional Games Board, possibly, but I suspect they only stuck their imprimatur on the sanction.

Let’s look elsewhere. The international game pays the bills in this country. When the national team performs everything is rosy in the garden, but any impediment to that is going to be a problem. T

here were a number of level playing fields and unfairness quotients trotted out about O’Connor’s predicament but again let’s be quite clear here: Leinster supplied 14 of the 23-man squad for the Championship decider in Murrayfield. The Jocks have been lamentable for a number of seasons now but for Ireland to put 40 points on them in Murrayfield, that is a pretty strong endorsement of whoever put that team on the field.

The cry from O’Connor was that he didn’t have access to those players. The riposte was that when he did they had performed a long way short of what they produced on the international field.

The rugby calendar shows that Leinster starters were available for the Heineken Cup pool matches and the serious interpro games. Leinster played in those games as though they had met an hour beforehand. That could not continue. The situation was compounded by the knowledge that these performance levels were not going to get better and in all probability would get worse.

It looks to me as though the national coach and the IRFU performance director decided enough was enough. I don’t know that for a fact, but somebody tell me that I’m wrong. Joe Schmidt wants to win the World Cup this year and he has a real chance so anything that remotely interferes with that ambition, well we know enough now that he does not hold back.

The impromptu retaliatory press conferences in response to Matt O’Connor’s outburst about player availability should have told us everything. Why a press conference when a phone call or a coffee would suffice? If Leinster had got to the Champions Cup final (and they would have had a chance if they did), I don’t think it would have been any different.

There are very few teams in world rugby that are expected to win all of the time. The All Blacks are one. Blackrock College SCT is another. If you forge a winning history and tradition — no matter what your circumstances are now — you are expected to be competitive at all times. Even if your roster is full of mediocre players. Max out! Play at above 95 per cent of your ability every week and up it for the big games.

Never lose to a side that are below you, your heritage demands that of you.

Leinster’s pedigree now demands that they meet certain standards. This is not anything imposed on them by their fans or by the media, this is a self-imposed diktat in the constitution of any bona fide sporting dynasty.

We are told that O’Connor won 66 per cent of his competitive games. The outlier here is that you have to ask how much would the tea lady win. A cup of Barry’s, a chat amongst yourselves and out you go. If Jose Mourinho had been put in charge at the start of the season? ‘OK Jose, different sport but we want you to get this team to perform to its potential. Win first, entertain second if you can do both at the same time all the better.’

The good coaches shine through. There would have been no 24-all draw or the scraping of a 10-0 victory against Treviso. These are the type of results that separate the good coach from the mediocre coach. The added value, the incremental gains from the superior coach is the difference between winning championships and winning only 50 per cent of your matches this season.

If Joe Schmidt had not been in charge in 2011 and 2012 and it had been left to somebody else, Leinster would only have one star over the harp logo on their jerseys. At all stages the coach is the most important person in your organisation — never forget that.

The hardest work in coaching is the thinking, the strategising, conceptualising away from the training paddock, reinforcing those ideas on the pitch and again before the match and at half-time is where good coaches come into their own.

In his second season it became apparent that O’Connor’s limited breadth of vision saw his team engage in such low-brow performances. I have used the analogy before of being in charge of the 1970s Brazilian football side and using Jack Charlton’s long-ball tactics.

This Leinster side in 2012/’13 season was the best passing side in Europe. Their back-line skills have regressed so much that passing fluently to the wing is now cheered by Leinster fans when it was just a basic task, readily executed no more than two seasons ago. Whoever comes in will have this chapter to fix before anything else.

The mistakes, the unforced errors, the stupid penalties, the aimless kicking and the ball going loose on the floor. All these factors which dogged Leinster are symptomatic of a mental decline and a drop in standards. The new coach will have to fix these and here the players are not blameless. Professional rugby players who train for 48 weeks of the year should be able to give and receive a pass under any circumstances without dropping the ball. I think things have become a little too cosy up in Richview. The European draw due in the next few weeks will certainly focus their minds on where they are now. Something a little more radical is required though.

The Emperor Crassus brought decimation back to the Roman legions. The practice of killing the 10 most insubordinate or least disciplined soldiers out of 100 strengthened allegiance in two ways: the weaker soldiers no longer held the legion back and the survivors, well, killing their own soldiers focused the mind wonderfully on the job in hand. It could be them next.

A little bit of bloodletting is required. There are players on big salaries who have consistently underperformed. The Kane and Zane show spring to mind. I look at Andrew Conway toiling on the Munster periphery and think how much better than Kirchner is he?

Warren Gatland, to the horror and disgust of all here, dropped Brian O’Driscoll for the third and deciding Lions Test. It was an unpalatable act but the dropping changed the whole dynamic and sporting emotion going into the game, which at that stage was firmly in favour of the Wallabies. A jolt, a shock and a reaffirmation in Leinster’s roster is required to focus the minds as to who the players are playing for.

As for the new coach the premise is that he would have to be 20 per cent or more better than anything that can be supplied locally, given that Anthony Foley and Neil Doak are making progress and that just might colour people’s minds that we have people here who can do it.

I am reliably informed that husbands never leave their wives unless they have another woman (or man) to go to before they leave. I suspect the process of replacing O’Connor may have started a few months ago and a deal could be announced soon.

As for O’Connor, well he’s an affable and popular man but affability is no protection from the W-L column. Tony McGahan is in charge of the Melbourne Rebels, Michael Cheika, before he became the Wallabies coach, was in charge of the Waratahs and now O’Connor has a good chance of the Queensland Reds position. What a contribution we make to Australian rugby.

There are two immutable lessons here: O’Connor was not good enough so he pays the price; and it is the right thing to do now. His successor had better know how to play alongside the headmaster from Palmerston North or he will be gone just as decisively and quickly.

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