Friday 15 December 2017

Comment: Taking over from Joe Schmidt was always an impossible task for O'Connor

Matt O'Connor took over from Joe Schmidt
Matt O'Connor took over from Joe Schmidt

Ruaidhri O’Connor

THE RISING tide that is Irish rugby has lifted all boats and the good ship Expectations is no different.

Following on from Rob Penney’s departure from Munster and the coup against Mark Anscombe in Ulster, Matt O’Connor leaves Leinster with a year to go on his contract. All three could leave pointing to decent results in big games, yet their efforts were deemed to be insufficient.

When the Australian updates his resume, his two seasons at the Irish province won’t look that bad. A trophy in year one, followed by a run to the Champions Cup semi-finals where his team would have beaten the undisputed top team in Europe had Jimmy Gopperth’s last-gasp drop-goal stayed on target.

However, rugby coaches are not judged on paper and for the paying fans who attended games at the RDS all season the writing has been on the wall for some time.

Even when Leinster got results under O'Connor, performances rarely inspired.

The coach had become an increasingly unpopular figure among a support-based used to glory.

While Brian O’Driscoll reckons the Leinster fans had become spoilt, they would argue that they have certain high standards that were set by the former Ireland centre’s team and that they hadn’t been met.

The atmosphere around Ballsbridge on match-night had been negative for some time, but when the news reached us here at that Leinster had made their move this morning, it still came as something of a shock.

Only yesterday, Ian Madigan had come out to bat for O’Connor at an IRFU launch and it was felt that the players’ backing would see the former Wallaby through until the end of next season when his contract would come to a natural end.

By that stage, he’d have had Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa available for the campaign and the hope was that the addition of that pair, plus another season of rugby under Kane Douglas and Ben Te’o’s belts would have helped Leinster return to the top.

Ultimately, the Leinster Professional Games Board and chief executive Mick Dawson decided they couldn’t take that chance.

In many ways, O’Connor faced the impossible job when he took over a team that had won six trophies in as many years and ruled the Heineken Cup in such style under Joe Schmidt.

Not only was he succeeding the hugely popular, massively successful New Zealander, but his predecessor would be working with the majority of his players on a regular basis, based a kilometre away and, it turned out, would continue to achieve brilliant things in his new job.

During the past two seasons, Leinster’s best players played better for Ireland and that meant that fans and observers who watched both teams closely began asking questions.

When O’Connor complained about Schmidt and the IRFU’s close control of when he could and could not use his front-line internationals, the Ireland coach came out swinging with a very public rebuke. It was a significant nail in the coffin.

There were moments. The wins over Northampton Saints and the Pro12 final victory over Glasgow Warriors showed glimpses of what the gameplan should look like, but they were all-too rare.

Instead, too often the province seemed to play within themselves in a style that drew the ire of fans used to free-flowing, attractive rugby. The forwards often got them over the line, but too often

O’Connor wasn’t helped by the squad he inherited and the players who retired after his first year. Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner were downgrades on Sexton and Nacewa, but he compounded that by signing Kane Douglas who has done little to impress.

Recruiting Ben Te’o to replace the retiring Brian O’Driscoll was a gamble because converting from rugby league was always going to take time and, ultimately, O’Connor’s successor will reap the benefits.

The search for his successor begins in earnest and the candidates will be well warned of the expectation that currently prevail around Irish rugby and at Leinster in particular.

Silverware is expected, while a certain style is demanded. O’Connor produced one without the other and paid the price. 

Read more: Matt O'Connor on Leinster departure: 'I am disappointed and frustrated with our form in the PRO12 this season'

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