Tony Ward: Matt O'Connor may be getting a raw deal but latest setback was avoidable
Published 14/04/2015 | 02:30
To play or not to play his top players ahead of the biggest game of Leinster's season - that was the dilemma facing Matt O'Connor when declaring his hand for Rodney Parade on Sunday.
But the verdict on this 'must-win occasion' ahead of next weekend's 'must-win occasion' was always going to hinge on the result. With respect to almost every player involved in Wales, the quality of performance against the Dragons didn't matter a whit when weighed against the final result.
This was all about the win and staying in touch with the top four in the Pro12. The extra point would have been nice had it been acquired but despite getting into a 14-point lead with three tries in the bag, a risky selection came back to bite O'Connor with Leinster getting what they just about deserved in the end - a very damaging defeat.
For sure the Leinster head coach has made another massive rod with which to be beaten and disgruntled Leinster fans won't be slow in doing so. Whether or not it's fair is irrelevant. In a pro sport you stand or fall by your results and, right now, despite again making it into the top four in Europe, O'Connor in the eyes of the so-called blue army is failing Leinster badly.
He's not quite at the last-chance saloon but a second-place finish in Marseille followed by anything other than a three-win return at the Kingspan Stadium (Ulster), the RDS (Treviso) and Murrayfield (Edinburgh) will see the heat being applied from every angle.
And with just a five-day turn-around from what is sure to be a massively demanding Champions Cup semi-final before the trek to Belfast to take on an Ulster side guaranteed to be champing at the bit, it is the last thing Leinster need. Put simply, the next 10 days will not only make or break their season but quite possibly the entire set-up at Leinster Rugby too.
Is that fair? No, but what it represents is the harsh reality of life in the fast lane of professional sport where winning is the very bottom line and in Leinster's case - as we have seen throughout the season to date - even that is not enough. O'Connor is still getting a raw deal although he left himself wide open for what transpired in Newport by trying to keep his key men wrapped in cotton wool for the serious test in Toulon.
It would have made more sense to have had at least a half dozen hard diggers on the bench just in case things went awry in Wales which, of course, they did.
The difference Luke Fitzgerald made in his short time on the pitch was clear for all to see yet, apart from Jordi Murphy (for Shane Jennings) and Luke McGrath (although not a 'hard digger' per se) had he been given the chance, the selected 23 was fraught with danger. And we are not being clever in hindsight here.
Bear in mind O'Connor, rightly in my view, criticised the IRFU protocol denying him the same front-line troops against Glasgow a fortnight before; yet for this similar must-win match he chose to put many of the same players in cotton wool.
Despite the logic - batteries charged for Toulon etc - it was a decision that has come back to bite him. It could and should have been avoided. Tell me that a Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip or Sean Cronin wouldn't have closed this one out when the pressure mounted in the final quarter?
Of course the yellow card to Ben Te'o was hugely relevant but that was manageable as the same players have proved many times in the past when reduced to 14.
Sunday's loss just seemed such an unnecessary one and while clearly a different team with a different mindset will take the field on Sunday in deepest France, this damage to collective morale in the build-up was avoidable. Leinster will put it behind them and will deliver the requisite performance in France. Quite whether it will be enough to win we will deal with later in the week but for now they have given themselves a mountain to climb if the season is not to peter out at Murrayfield on May 16.
By contrast, Munster are looking good with Treviso and the Dragons at home (plus Ulster away) in the run-in, while Glasgow, Ulster and the Ospreys have much more difficult play-off paths to negotiate.
With just three series of Pro12 games to go and an eight-point deficit for Leinster to fourth-placed Ospreys, Munster, Glasgow, Ulster and Ospreys look worthy bookies' favourites to top the standings and possibly in that finishing order.
One final point following Sunday's Newport collapse.
No doubt we will have Jimmy Gopperth portrayed as the root of all evil according to a vociferous section of Leinster fans. They are entitled to their opinions but they are wrong. Gopperth is the real deal as an all-round out-half.
He does not, as appears to be the populist myth, play deep. Like Ian Madigan alongside him, he attacks the gainline but has at this point in time a more intuitive game-running sense.
I fully support O'Connor in his desire to get his best footballers on the field and for me having Gopperth at ten with Madigan wearing 12 is an absolute no-brainer. The uninformed flak Gopperth ships is quite extraordinary, even by spoilt Leinster standards.
Finally, and very much on the positive side from a Leinster perspective, is the fallout from Saturday's final series of games in the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League.
Obviously pending the outcome of the enticing relegation/promotion play-off between St Mary's and Garryowen at Templeville on Saturday week, six of the 10 teams comprising Division 1A could be based in the metropolis.
We are not saying that is a good thing but it reflects exceptionally well on all involved at Lansdowne, Terenure, Clontarf, Old Belvedere, UCD and possibly St Mary's.
Galaxy of rising stars ready to shine in Cashel
As an appetiser to Sunday's massive game in Marseille, the stars of tomorrow will strut their stuff in Cashel 24 hours beforehand when the Leinster and Munster Senior Schools Cup winners Cistercian College, Roscrea and Rockwell College come head to head in a unique inter-provincial encounter.
This eagerly-awaited clash (hopefully a forerunner to an annual Bateman Cup-type tournament for schools from the four provinces) will take place at Cashel RFC with a 2.30pm kick-off.
The teams will be playing for the Garvey/Lavelle Cup in honour of Fr Garvey from Roscrea and Fr Lavelle from Rockwell.
The entire event is being sponsored by John Purcell Meats. World Cup referee John Lacey will officiate with an entrance fee of €10 for adults, €5 for students and children under 12 for free.
Everything raised on the day will go to the Hope Foundation and Aidlink.
PS: Like most I cannot fully comprehend that 'Trasser' is no longer with us. Ray Treacy was and will forever be one of the greats of the Dublin soccer scene. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.