Time and friends in short supply
New Leinster coach will have to back up his bark with real bite
Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30
On the patio of a south Dublin hotel last Wednesday lunchtime, Seán O'Brien was fulfilling his media duties with a handful of Sunday journos. It was standard stuff: we were there to marvel at the latest change in shade or fabric that Canterbury are bringing to the kit they supply to the Ireland team. To encourage us to turn up we are given a player from whom we drag a few quotes. That's how the game works.
We covered a few issues with O'Brien, ranging from why he opted to knock back Toulon - having been over there twice to check the place out, and liked it - to the World Cup in a few months, and how he expected Ireland to perform.
Somewhere in the middle was the question of Matt O'Connor. Back in March in this newspaper the flanker had been unqualified in his support of the coach, blaming Leinster's poor form instead on the players.
Since then the disparate approaches of O'Connor and his predecessor Joe Schmidt have got a good airing in the public domain. "Different coaches bring different things," O'Brien said last week. "If he's (O'Connor) not that type of coach, he's not that type of coach. It's not something he'll become.
"Cheiks (Michael Cheika) was a bully probably. Joe would let you know that if you needed a kick in the arse, you'd get one. Matt would have a different way of approaching you and of man-managing players. That's just his style. Players need to drive themselves, like. That's the biggest thing and, as I said earlier, I don't think we done that this year."
It seemed a pretty good summation, but you wondered if O'Connor would have to change at least some of his tune in order to get the players back in the right key. A matter of hours later O'Brien was at a 7.30am squad meeting in Leinster's UCD base when CEO Mick Dawson addressed the group. In a short delivery he told them Matt would be moving on. As you were, lads.
Or perhaps not. All of them knew O'Connor was going through a rough patch but the ones we spoke to reckoned he would be trying to ride it out into next season. The escape route seemed clear enough: O'Connor gives an end-of-season press conference, flanked by Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip; he holds his hands up for getting things wrong, but, you know what, they're fixable - and he's already all over it; and with Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa coming back; and a handful of new players coming through it will be a different scene next season.
That would have obviated the need to shell out to send O'Connor on his way, and to trawl the world for a successor with at least the same coaching skills as he has - which are significant, despite the way it looked at times during the season. Instead they did the difficult thing, and that tells you something about how Leinster perceive themselves.
It has been suggested that they acted to stem the tide of un-renewed season tickets. In Joe Schmidt's last season, 2012/'13, sales were in the region of 13,000. They fell off by 1,000 the next season and recovered a little further this term. Two weeks ago Leinster announced that they had hit the 10,000 mark for 2015/'16 which would be a week ahead of schedule. Instead of extending their 'early bird' offer by a month, as they had done last year, this time they gave fans only an extra week as the traffic suggested that was sufficient. The idea that Leinster were haemorrhaging season tickets under Matt O'Connor doesn't stack up.
Moreover, it is out there that those twin peaks of power, Joe Schmidt and David Nucifora, wanted O'Connor out of town. It's remarkable the number of people who are sitting up straighter in their seats since Nucifora arrived last summer as the IRFU's performance director.
As outlined in these pages a week ago, the press briefing given last month on the subject of the Player Management Programme was more about putting the Leinster coach back in his box for having criticised the programme than the intricacies of a subject that is, at best, unexciting. It has been suggested to us that this was done in public because O'Connor was prevaricating over meeting up in private. A senior source in Leinster however dismissed this last week as "rubbish".
Either way, it was clear from the content and tone of that briefing that neither Schmidt nor Nucifora were enamoured of O'Connor. Stresses and strains in any working relationship are hardly unique. In the shark-pool of an Irish rugby context they can, figuratively speaking, prove fatal, but it's a jump from there to suggesting this unhappy camp was pivotal in O'Connor having to fold his tent.
For example, would he have been turfed - and he was - if he had enjoyed the unqualified support of Leinster's eight-man professional game board? Not everyone in that group is a card-carrying devotee of all things IRFU. If they had wanted to stand by their man then he would still be standing too. Rather they were on his case from a while back.
The PGB met three times this season to review O'Connor's performance: once before Christmas, and twice since then - the most recent being last Monday. His performance would have been considered under more headings than results alone, which would have centred on making the knockout stages of the Champions Cup and the Guinness Pro12. For example the throughput of home-grown talent to Ireland representative sides is an issue, as is the development of, and game time given to, those players in the Leinster set-up. On that front the belated selection of Academy fullback Cian Kelleher, in the last game of the season against Edinburgh, looked odd.
The circumstances of O'Connor's arrival two summers ago have been well-documented, in that he inherited a squad diminishing in quality and had to follow a uniquely successful coach in Joe Schmidt. Set against that backdrop the Australian's results were better than most appreciate: a Pro12 title in his first season and twice in the knockout stages of Europe, both of those European campaigns ending against the eventual winners, Toulon.
The dismal run-in to the Pro12 campaign cooked his goose however. It was the first time since 2004, when they finished eighth, that Leinster had been packing their buckets and spades while the top four were sharpening their studs. The key moment in last week's PGB meeting was when they considered if it was feasible that in a year's time they could be offering Matt O'Connor a contract extension.
Nobody could see that. So if they didn't have confidence in him taking the ship forward there was no point in floating for another season, a period in which serious damage could be done to the brand, they reckoned. And despite the flood of tv and benefactor cash into England and France, Leinster's brand is still one of the strongest in Europe.
That's why they will soon be able to announce a naming rights deal on the RDS. And why, if Connacht don't squeeze into the Champions Cup next season, the pressure will increase on Robbie Henshaw to go east where he would be part of a midfield with Johnny Sexton, Ian Madigan, Ben Te'o, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid all looking for places.
Given how Leinster see themselves then consider the following: they reckon O'Connor simply wasn't hard enough on the players, yet this should have shown up when they were doing their research on him in the first place, when he was with Leicester where Richard Cockerill provided enough of the dog for everybody. And whoever succeeds O'Connor will need to bark and bite while standing on his hind legs if he is going to reach the standards Leinster want.
Next season (2015/'16) is not going to be designated the Year of the Club. The Pro12 fixtures will not be finalised until mid July, and if Leinster's schedule initially has a raft of those less affected by international call-ups then the World Cup window - in which there are seven games, between lead-in and lead-out of the tournament - will be very tough going.
And it won't end there. If Ireland fall short of the target of a last-four place at RWC, then Joe Schmidt will be on a mission of atonement for the Six Nations. Can't see a lot of 'Leinster mental time' between those two gigs. Even if they do reach that World Cup goal, the prospect of a hat-trick of Championships will be front and centre for Schmidt.
So hands up who wants to succeed Matt O'Connor. When Seán O'Brien last week was reiterating his belief that the players needed to take some of the flak that ended up on the coach's jacket he was only partly right. There are a raft of relationships that need to be managed to get the mix right. The next man in will have to be looking left and right and behind him. And he'll need to be looking up a bit as well.
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