Tuesday 23 January 2018

Matt O'Connor: Heineken Cup will not be the same without English clubs

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connor

Matt O’Connor, the Leinster head coach, believes that the absence of English clubs from Europe next season would be devastating.

As an Australian in charge of one of Ireland’s finest, preparing a side to travel to Franklin’s Gardens to face Northampton in the outstanding fixture of the round, you might expect him to take some pleasure in the discomfort of the English. Not a bit of it.

“It would be catastrophic for the game as a whole, globally never mind just in Europe,” said O’Connor, newly installed this season as the main man at Leinster after Joe Schmidt took over the national job with Ireland.

“The tribalism, the enthusiasm, the level of competition, the fans, the TV coverage – what is there not to like? It will not be the same without the English clubs.

"Differences have to be put to one side and a solution found. It needs to be averted at all costs.”

O’Connor cut his coaching teeth at the Brumbies, Australia A and then for four years alongside Richard Cockerill at Leicester.

He could be just as animated and heated as that bundle of snarling intensity, passion that he has taken with him to Dublin.

O’Connor knows all about the difficulties of playing at Franklin’s Gardens having overseen several rumbustious encounters in the East Midlands derby.

There is no doubt that Pool One is a brute of a group with the French champions, Castres, leading Wales region, Ospreys along with Northampton.

Leinster have their own exalted pedigree as three-time Heineken Cup champions, only bettered last season at the pool stage by eventual finalists Clermont Auvergne.

The Irish went on to win the Amlin Challenge Cup.

O’Connor has quickly tuned in to the hold the Heineken Cup has on Irish sides. The tournament is the centre-piece of their season.

“It is very special to them,” said O’Connor.

“It felt like that too at Leicester given their own track record but the guys here know that the Heineken Cup is how they will be judged as a group. It is how I will be judged.

"The guys here have come to understand Cup rugby. Everything matters. That is the mentality. And we certainly need to go to Franklin’s Gardens with that sort of attitude. "

"Northampton put a lot of store on generating emotional energy at home and they do that by trying to dominate you up-front. We have got to meet that and match that.”

Leinster’s cause has been boosted by the return of the Ireland contingent. There are a dozen on show from the side that ran the All Blacks so close at the Aviva Stadium a fortnight ago.

The flip side of having so much experience to hand is that they might have been scarred by events.

“If it had been a lesser fixture then there might have been worries about some sort of emotional hangover,” said O’Connor, who has no concerns either that the trophy-laden warriors of recent years might lack that all-important tingle of the novice.

“It is the very fact of having been to the top of the mountain that makes these guys so hungry to get there again. They like the feeling and they know what it takes to get there.”

Leinster are well placed, three points clear in the pool after victories over Ospreys (19-9) and Castres (19-7). Even so they are braced for an elemental battle.

“These back-to-back fixtures are unique,” said O’Connor. “It can make or break you, no matter how well you think you are doing.”

In 2011 these two teams were responsible for the most epic Heineken Cup final yet, Leinster mounting the sort of fightback the like of which New Zealand might have been proud. Northampton went into the break at the Millennium Stadium understandably pleased with themselves with a 22-6 advantage.

Long before the final whistle sounded that upbeat mood had turned to one of misery with Leinster sweeping all before them to score 33 unanswered points.

“That was a hell of a game of footy,” said O’Connor , who watched it on TV as a neutral.

“That game has been very much in the minds of the boys this past week, not as a way to pat themselves on the back but to remind themselves just how dangerous Northampton can be. They travel forewarned.”

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