Friday 22 February 2019

Time to move on

With his Leicester side facing Munster, ex-Leinster coach Matt O'Connor returns to Ireland today for the first time since his controversial sacking, but the last man to lead the Blues to title success insists he holds neither grudges nor regrets

Matt O’Connor will be hoping his Leicester Tigers can put one over on Munster today. Photo: Getty Images
Matt O’Connor will be hoping his Leicester Tigers can put one over on Munster today. Photo: Getty Images
David Kelly

David Kelly

Now, where were we before being so rudely interrupted two-and-a-half years ago?

Matt O'Connor was quite enjoying himself in Ireland thanks very much. Some people, in fact, including a pile of his Leinster players who wouldn't stop telling everyone who asked, were quite enjoying having Matt O'Connor in Ireland too.

But others were not.

And so it came to pass that a few days after Ian Madigan's late attempt to dethrone the three-time European champions Toulon in a semi-final on French soil missed its target by a matter of inches, rugby's big noises made sure the guillotine's glinting steel did not.

With that, after two years of an intended three-year stay, O'Connor and Leinster parted ways - mutual consent and all that jazz - with much muttering about artistic differences.

Dissonant

The Aussie had managed to produce a hit record - their 2014 Celtic League title remains the province's most recent capture - but the performances struck a dissonant chord amongst a support used to the swashbuckling style of his predecessor, Joe Schmidt.

And, befitting his national characteristic, his outspoken style didn't endear him to the head honchos who paid his wages, nor the men who resided further up Irish rugby's food chain, which by this stage now included Schmidt.

O'Connor may have struck some of the right notes but not necessarily in the right order. In the end, he hit one bum note too many and, not to put to fine a point on it, was politely informed not to let the door smack his behind on the way out.

Sport and politics always mix - especially when they're sporting politics. Shorn the retired Brian O'Driscoll and the departed Isa Nacewa and Johnny Sexton, O'Connor got the hump once too often when the IRFU denied him access to his players in the "national interest".

His outbursts became more frequent and more public and in the end, when he couldn't save himself, a league title and two European knockout defeats to the all-conquering Toulon couldn't save him either.

This weekend, he returns to Ireland, via Queensland, but back in Leicester colours, from where he had been originally plucked by Leinster in 2013 and, if he has stuffed any regrets amongst his carry-on luggage, he hasn't declared them at customs.

"I actually had a fantastic time there," says O'Connor. "I still have a lot of great friendships from the two seasons at Leinster."

Still, we had to chuckle when he appeared on BT Sport last week, effusively welcoming the chance that Eddie Jones afforded him to play his leading lights in a crunch clash with Wasps. Wouldn't happen here!

"It's a little bit different obviously," he chuckles. "The players during my time here always cherish the chance to come back here and contribute as much as they can. We saw that with Elliot Genge and George Ford eager to drive things on."

Some Irish players were often keen to do so here; we recall Sexton's frustration when stood down by Declan Kidney five festive seasons ago.

Privately, the players mostly keep mum, particularly the chosen IRFU ones, for the country, not the province, pay their wages.

"Yeah, most definitely," adds O'Connor. "It's one of those things. As professional athletes, when they're fit and feeling good they want to play. It's a small window professional sport.

"You don't want to be sitting around in the stands watching on when you can be out there adding value and make a contribution.

"But that's the rationale they have and the decision the IRFU make and you have to respect that. It's a different system in England and certainly a different system in Tigers."

He called as he saw it, due to frustration, even if his appointment would have had to be effectively rubber-stamped by IRFU HQ as well.

"I did indeed! Yeah, it was a unique situation for me. You understand the rationale behind it but it certainly has a significant impact on the ability to build continuity and to get the performances at a level that you need."

O'Connor didn't help himself at times; it's just that he reckoned he needed a bit more help from upon high.

Instead of brooding silently, he carped publicly but, against both Schmidt and performance director David Nucifora, he was both outnumbered and outfoxed.

Few in Ireland get to say it ain't so Joe and live to tell the tale. So even if he clambered over the brick wall, trouble was always on the other side.

"Oh yeah, it was indeed! But the management system is the management system," he says, before adding a teasing post-script.

"They think that is the best system to get the best out of the players at Test level. I suppose we'll get another understanding if that is the best model when we get to the World Cup in 2019."

If 2015 is anything to go by, the jury is still out.

That's not his concern now but, for all the justified carping about his style - despite the players' enthusiasm for his empathetic, light-touch coaching expertise - he still reflects fondly on his abruptly abbreviated stint in Ireland.

"It is what it is, you can't spend your life wandering around with your hands tied. So I don't regret anything about my time there and I actually had a fantastic time in Dublin. I still have a lot of great friendships from the two seasons I spent there.

"The reality was the relationship was fractured and wasn't going to work going forward. I wasn't prepared to be there with my hands tied and not provide the leadership to the organisation that I thought was justified. So there was no point moving forward in that scenario. So it was the best for both parties."

Ironically, with both Nacewa and Sexton repatriated, Leinster have won nothing since and indeed crashed out of Europe at the pool stages just months after the squad reached that epic, if aptly dour, defeat in Marseilles.

Fondness

His fondness stretches to his work on the field too.

"I think so. I was incredibly proud of my time at Leinster. The win against Glasgow in the Pro12 final was the performance of that season by some distance. And again, I was incredibly proud of what we did in Marseilles against Toulon, losing in extra-time.

"So from that perspective, I couldn't be prouder of my time there and the contribution that the players and I made to the history of the place. You said it there 100 per cent. You'd have to ask the question whether the rugby union wants the provinces to be dominant or do they want to put their investment into the national side."

Tigers are struggling to hang onto the coat-tails of the leading bunch and, in Europe, success in this week's double-header will be vital to their Champions Cup health as he locks horns once more with a Munster side struggling to fend off vultures from overseas.

O'Connor reckons Irish rugby should look at itself first.

"The reality is that the market is a global one and the pull of the Euro and the pound is significant. What Munster have demonstrated is that it is not always about financial rewards.

"Other things go into the decision, the culture they have developed over a long period of time is a significant pull.

"But at the end of the day it comes down to a personal decision for their future. If they perceive they are not being valued at a level they feel is justified by their Union, well then, there is a decision to be made."

The Leicester side he had left had been crowned English champions in 2013 but when he returned in the middle of last season, they were continuing a steep decline; O'Connor arrived following Richard Cockerill's sacking and the edging out of the popular Aaron Mauger, which prompted much outrage amongst some players.

"Yeah, it was a unique one," he says. "It was a little bit strange in a sense to take over with six games to go but to be fair the decision that was made was the right one.

"And to be fair it gave me a lot of scope to remould the playing squad and get some things sorted out in the background that have been instrumental in terms of where we are going, which I wouldn't have had the luxury of doing in the pre-season.

"Look, European rugby is the best environment to coach in. The Champions Cup is a fantastic competition and the best in the world in my view. And added to that, the Premiership is a fantastic competition. Every week you have to be good and that brings out the best in everybody."

It probably brings out the best in him, too.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport