Tony Ward: All of Leinster must put faith in Matt O'Connor
Published 21/04/2015 | 02:30
They've dug such an almighty hole for themselves that I'm not even sure a full 15-point return from the last three games will get them out of it. The hole to which I refer, of course, is Leinster's poor run of results in the Pro12. Though still alive mathematically in the competition, they face what looks an impossible task to make the play-offs, beginning in Belfast in three days' time.
Of the three remaining matches the trip to Kingspan is the one they wanted least on the back of Marseille and everything it entailed. In every respect what transpired in deepest France was draining. Physically, mentally, emotionally, every player involved, and I mean every player, emptied himself in the cause of Leinster Rugby.
Yes, there were key moments and the game did swing on a single mistake but Ian Madigan gave every bit as much to a courageous Leinster effort as Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy, Devin Toner or any of the stand-out performers on the day.
Madigan's attempted miss-out pass was wrong in both option and execution. He knows that and needs little reminding of what the consequences were. At a time in the match with Toulon (wrongly in my view) reduced to 14, it turned the tide the home team's way. Bernard Laporte admitted afterwards that he felt a third final appearance in a row had gone with the big Kiwi lock Ali Williams' dismissal to the bin. I share that opinion. When cool heads were needed, a rush of blood cost Leinster dear.
And now that the dust is settling on a courageous Leinster effort in which they could and should have won, the wolves are circling as new-age fans, self-righteous experts, want everybody out. Matt O'Connor, Leo Cullen, Richie Murphy, Jimmy Gopperth, Madigan, Rob Kearney - get rid of them all, they chime.
Is it any wonder confidence in the camp, despite the standard denials, isn't even close to what it should be given the quality within the squad? There was a time when players got away with the line 'I don't read the papers' and therefore didn't know what was going on outside of the bubble that is a rugby camp. Well, those days are long gone.
Now they are acutely aware of almost everything written or said within minutes of it appearing in print or over the airwaves. They may be professional sportspeople, well paid for doing what they do, but they are also human, with sensitivities the same as the rest of us.
Whoever followed Joe Schmidt at Leinster was taking up a poisoned chalice. O'Connor, in extremely difficult circumstances, is doing so much more than a reasonable job in a difficult period of transition. He has cut his cloth as best he can with what is available yet he is verbally beaten from pillar to post by a segment of the so-called blue faithful. Spare me.
Far from losing the dressing room he is in charge of a fully united squad and that includes the disaffected, as in those players not quite making the cut. If that wasn't a Leinster unit playing for itself, for each other, for its supporters, for its cause and for its coach in the face of adversity in Marseille then I don't know what it was.
And still the clamour goes on. Sack the management and all will be well. The magic wand of football (soccer) is well and truly coming our way. I believe in Mick Dawson and the Leinster Professional Game Board chaired by Ben Underwood. They are, to a man, rugby people who get the drift. And they too are fans who yearn (and aspire to) the galactico-style winning rugby of the recent past. But, equally, they are realistic enough to understand what it takes in terms of time and the bedding in of a new structure - on the field and off - in order to get back to where they were.
There are other factors too, with Guy Easterby absolutely on the money when questioning the IRFU (and by extension the former Leinster head coach) over player welfare. We would like to think all will be well but with a World Cup on the horizon, it could be next November (depending on how Ireland go) before the Leinster management has a full and uninhibited hand with which to play. So if O'Connor were to be sacked, who in his right mind would want to follow in his footsteps given the raw deal he has had from a so-called loyal support base?
I guess if there is to be such thing as a magic wand then it will come in the shape of Johnny Sexton. The return of the 'special one' will have a galvanising effect from the top down and bottom up. On-form and fully fit, he is the most complete footballing out-half in the global game at the moment. Dan Carter has a bit to go to get back to where he was, which leaves George Ford, a relative rookie, as the nearest No 10 in terms of game-running impact.
To perform the way he has, given the backdrop, has made Jimmy Gopperth's time at Leinster much more productive than he is given credit for. Of course having fluffed his lines in Marseille with that late drop-goal, there are some who probably view him as the root of all Leinster's ills. Sometimes you despair. If his last home game is to be against Treviso at the RDS in a few weeks, I hope he gets the send-off he deserves.
But back to matters immediate and Friday's trek to Kingspan Park. An eight-point deficit to fourth-placed Ospreys really does look a bridge too far with three games left.
Factor in an Ulster squad in search of a home semi-final, en route to a possible Ravenhill final, buoyed by that win on the road in Galway and well rested for the visit of emotionally-drained Leinster. It's a tough ask, but never say never. As things stand, it appears the only issue to be decided between the Ospreys, Ulster, Munster and Glasgow is the venue of the semi-finals.
On the positive side, despite Sunday's disappointment, the Leinster performance - allied to that of Saracens in Saint-Etienne - provided proof positive of a more than manageable difference between Top 14, Aviva Premiership and Pro12. We're still playing uphill into the wind until the French salary cap can be addressed in a more meaningful way. If it isn't, then the benefactor system (already happening to some degree) must apply to the Irish game too.
Temporarily down but very far from out.