What now for Leinster and Matt O'Connor?
Sexton return will help, but he's not panacea for all of the province's ills
Published 21/04/2015 | 02:30
Almost an hour after Wayne Barnes had called time on Leinster's European campaign after 100 tumultuous minutes at the Stade Velodrome, Matt O'Connor was asked to contemplate next season's assault on the Champions Cup.
The Australian gave one of his trademark pithy replies, before giving the question a little bit more thought as he pointed out the fact that his players would be stronger for the experience of having run Toulon so close in Marseille, the squad would be all the better for the direction of Johnny Sexton and the experience of Isa Nacewa while pointing out that with a World Cup between now and then it was too soon to really assess.
The much-maligned coach had a point. By the time next season's tournament gets under way in November, more than half of his squad will have been involved in World Cup preparations, warm-up games and the tournament itself.
Expectations are high that Ireland will reach a first semi-final which guarantees a third/fourth-placed play-off at least, something that would mean 11 Tests before Leinster get to see their best players, who will undoubtedly be mentally and physically drained by the experience.
So you could forgive O'Connor his reluctance to make any grand promises about going one step beyond Sunday's semi-final next season.
And yet, the natural thing to do when you lose a close game in the last four is to look to the next opportunity and, when the Guinness Pro12 looks beyond them due to their sloppy performances over the last 10 weeks, the focus switches to next year.
For the past two seasons, Leinster's tilt has been ended by the juggernaut of Toulon. They were hammered out the gate at the Stade Felix Mayol last season, while they took the champions to extra-time last weekend.
While Leinster fans have lamented O'Connor's time in charge as a regression, he can now point to firm progress where results are concerned - even if the league table says otherwise.
Irish teams have always been judged on their European performances, however, and on Sunday the Blues showed that they can still go toe to toe with the best around and take it to the wire.
The problem is that the mountain is going to get higher next season, while their base camp is further down the foothills due to their aforementioned league problems.
In the cold world of the Champions Cup, a fifth-place Pro12 finish would render the three-time European champions third or fourth seeds for next year's tournament, leaving them with the prospect of a fiendishly difficult pool a la Munster and Ulster this season.
Their rivals will be stronger too. Sure, Carl Hayman, Ali Williams and Bakkies Botha will have retired, but Toulon will have added Samu Manoa, Ma'a Nonu, Napolioni Nalaga and Quade Cooper to their roster of stars.
On Sunday, Leinster proved that their pack can live with any of the big beasts; it's high time their backline joined them. Sexton is a significant upgrade on Jimmy Gopperth and Ben Te'o will be further down the track in adapting to the 15-man code.
The big Samoan was criminally under-utilised on Sunday as the province played a low-risk game but he showed glimpses of how he can light up the tournament next year outside Sexton.
The inside centre berth remains an issue and one wonders if O'Connor might try to redeploy Nacewa in that position. The back-three is one of the most keenly contested areas in the Leinster team, with Dave Kearney unlucky to miss out on the match-day 23 entirely against Bath and Toulon.
At 33 and with two years out of the game, Nacewa's gas might not be what it was, but his skill-set is unlikely to have diminished much and his rugby brain could complement Sexton nicely.
Gordon D'Arcy's cameo in extra-time proved that there's life in the old dog yet, while Noel Reid's season was scuppered on the opening day in Glasgow and he has failed to recover the mojo that made him so exciting to watch last season.
The man in possession of the No12 shirt, Ian Madigan, is likely to be caught between stools next season as Sexton's back-up for club and country. His kicking has been crucial to this season's campaign, but his midfield defence remains suspect.
The World Cup should allow Reid and Te'o some time to develop a partnership, while Ireland U-20 stars Garry Ringrose and Ross Byrne could also be afforded some time to develop.
Despite stating his intention to remain in the centre and work in tandem with Sexton, the returning Racing Metro man's appearances will be limited by Joe Schmidt and the player management scheme so Madigan will see plenty of time at out-half.
The return of Sexton should see the backline execution improve immeasurably and the O'Connor game-plan that the players constantly laud but the fans rarely see carried out properly will unveil itself.
The coach likes to talk about growth and this season his post-match exchanges have largely centred around his team's lack of accuracy. With his exacting nature and desire for perfection, Sexton should improve matters.
This season, Leinster failed to score a try in regulation time in half of their games. They scored half of their 14 tries in a turkey-shoot against Castres and otherwise averaged one a game despite earning a favourable draw by winning the Pro12 last season.
Taking the Castres home game out of the equation, they averaged 3.5 offloads a game 4.7 line-breaks. In contrast, Toulon have made an average of 15.6 offloads per game in this year's tournament, while Northampton have made an average of 10.1 clean breaks and lead the competition stats having had Treviso in their pool.
There is no question that the attack needs to improve next year, but while fans may continue to question O'Connor, the coach is here to stay.
For the next four weeks, his team will go in search of pride and an outside shot of a place in the Pro12 play-offs, but the hurt from Sunday will have to be bottled up and stored away for next year's campaign.
Then, they will have a stronger hand in a more difficult pool with the stakes just as high as ever. Conquering Europe has never been more difficult, but Leinster showed on Sunday that they remain the best-placed Irish side to do so.