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Matt: Youth needs a shot

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Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor. Picture credit: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

In the cut-throat world of professional sport, it is often lamented that there is little, if any, room for sentiment...

In the 1980s, there was nowhere near the breadth of seemingly 24/7 live sport for punters to gorge upon. It's taken as a 'gimme' now most weekends for rugby followers to have anything up to 10 live matches to savour.

But those of a certain vintage will remember a time when what was seldom was wonderful. For the Leinster coach, that meant a midnight huddle around the television and a competition which captivates him to this day.

"My first memories of rugby were watching the Five Nations, as it was known back then," the Australian revealed ahead of the tournament kick-off tomorrow.

"As a youngster growing up back in Oz, we didn't have the same access to live rugby, so I remember it being a great spectacle with some of the best players of that era. The tribalism and the history between the competing countries is special and every year seems to produce a series of great spectacles."

Ask O'Connor who he is tipping to lift the title and he estimates that it could be anyone's to win.

"It's going to be a really competitive tournament this year", he said, "and the Championship is going to be interesting.

"It's quite tight to call when you look at all the teams. Wales know what it takes to go and win coming off the back of their two successes in recent years. England will be tough, as they always are.

"With France? Who knows! And Ireland will take a lot of confidence from their performance against New Zealand, but the challenge will be to build on that."

On Sunday week, a little under 2,000 kilometres away, Leinster will be resuming their PRO12 campaign after a timely gap.

It has been, O'Connor admits, a valued break and one which has left the squad revitalised and recharged ahead of a massive few weeks in the calendar.

"The bulk of the squad is healthy, which is a boost because we're going to be down a few bodies until the end of the Six Nations. But looking back to last year's Pro12 victory and having spoken to a few players about it, they took a lot of confidence from the form the squad displayed during this international window.

"Next weekend will give us the chance to blood a few more younger guys. We're in the shake up for play-offs as it stands in the Pro12, we're obviously through to the Heineken Cup quarter-final in April and our British and Irish Cup form has been good. So there's going to be a chance next weekend and the following Friday against the Dragons for players to stake a claim.

"Zebre have been a lot tougher to beat this year and are a better team without question."

In April, the Leinster squad will try to conquer new territory when they travel to Toulon in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and O'Connor is excited about the test against "arguably one of the greatest club sides that has ever been assembled," as he describes the reigning European champions.

DIFFICULT

"We knew from the outset that, with the toughness of the group we were involved in, it was going to be difficult for us to get a home quarter-final because, against the likes of the Northampton Saints, Castres Olympique and the Ospreys, it was going to be tough to get bonus points.

"The first objective was to get out of the group. After that, we were in the lap of the Gods to an extent with the way the quarter-final permutations see-sawed over the last round of pool matches.

"Toulon are a fantastic side and there's a real marquee feel to their side which has some of the best players across both hemispheres.

"They have a special squad, but they can only put out 15 players each week. And I have confidence in our squad's abilities to go over there and get the result. It's a while away yet, but it is exciting for everyone."

But he is more focused on the here and now. Plotting the French scalp can wait. The last fortnight has enabled O'Connor to reflect and analyse what has gone before as he plans for the closing stages of the campaign.

It has been an enjoyable campaign, he says, but one which has not been without its tests.

"It was good to have a bit of breathing space last week, to have a look at the overall season without the time pressure of having to plan for a game that weekend.

"The guys who are still in the environment are focused as a group not to let our standards drop. It is important that we strive to put in two consistently good performances over the next two games. We still have a bit of experience to call upon and, for the younger players, it's going to be an important test in their development.

"Over the last few months, we have seen a number of these players step up and take their chances with the senior team and this is something that we want to keep on pushing. I have always held the view that if players are good enough, then they're old enough.

"The likes of Marty (Moore) and Jordi (Murphy), for example, might be young in terms of years, but they have been around the environment for the last few years. They've stepped up and it's great reward for all the coaches who have helped in their development to see them getting called up to the international squad.

"As a coach all you want to try to do is help blokes become better players.

"The reward for us is to see them go on and hopefully get that international recognition. And hopefully there will be more to come in the weeks and seasons to come."


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