Friday 23 March 2018

O'Connor needs backline to click for silver lining

Pro12 trophy would make coach's transitional first season a success

Leinster's Devin Toner, left, and Mike Ross in action during squad training
Leinster's Devin Toner, left, and Mike Ross in action during squad training
Gordon D'Arcy, Leinster, is tackled by Iain Henderson, Ulster
Leinster manager Matt O'Connor
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE first season of Matt O'Connor's Leinster reign has just three games to run but those 240 minutes of rugby will do much to determine whether the campaign has been a success.

Most are reserving judgment on the Australian's assimilation into the three-time European champions' environment as he looks to change the machine that Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt built into one of the most powerful around.

Replacing the now-Ireland coach was never going to be an easy task. That he was joined in departing by Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa didn't help matters.

The knock-on effect appears to have been a decline in the creative play behind the scrum for a province whose mission throughout the Schmidt years was to become the best passing team in Europe.

During the pool stages of the Heineken Cup, they hit those heights just once when they decimated Northampton Saints in a performance that has shone far brighter than anything else they have produced.

Otherwise, their displays have often been examples of winning ugly as they qualified for the quarter-finals with gritty wins on the road in Castres and Swansea, and home wins that haven't lived long in the memory.

The slip-up to Northampton at the Aviva Stadium was widely blamed for the province failing to earn a home quarter-final, but one more try bonus point would have gotten them over the line.

That sent them on the road to Toulon where the kick-heavy game plan was heavily criticised, while Friday's failure to put away a 14-man Ulster was another worrying example of a decline in the handling skills and cohesiveness behind the scrum.

But there has not been a marked decline in the numbers. Fifty-one per cent of Leinster's scores in this season's Pro12 have come from tries, compared with 54pc last year, 42pc in 2011/12 and 50pc in 2011/12.

They have the same amount of four-try bonus points as at the same point last season and more than they did in the previous two seasons. In Europe, their strike rate in the pool stages was on par with the years they won the competition despite being in a high-calibre pool.

Europe didn't go to plan, but a second successive Pro12 title would soften the blow.

On Friday, the problems were summed up by the backs when they were presented with a massive overlap during the second half and looked odds-on to score.

However, Ian Madigan's pass to Zane Kirchner forced the Springbok to check, while Gordon D'Arcy's final pass to Dave Kearney caused the wing to stumble as he attempted a bootlace pick-up and Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne managed to scramble across.

On song, Leinster would have finished a chance like that in their sleep and D'Arcy says the backs themselves need to take responsibility for their own accuracy.

"I think there is definitely a transition in how we're approaching the game. That is only natural with a new coach coming in," he explained.

"As players, we need to take a little bit more responsibility for how we carry ourselves on the pitch.


"There's a huge amount of positives. But, unfortunately, there's a few negatives in that we're not executing at our high standards. That has got to come back to us.

"It is something we are very conscious of. We are trying some different things, trying to be more creative. That is a challenge to the players.

"We just need to be harder on ourselves, be a little bit more clinical.

"At the weekend we did have some good bits but once the opposition get reduced by a player it changes your whole game plan, you just play percentages and the most important thing is winning the game.

"But, up until that point, there were some good plays and some good passages of play and there's a better understanding among the players about what Matt wants."

It could be argued that the constant chopping and changing in the out-half position has not helped and Madigan looked low on confidence as he was outshone by Paddy Jackson at Ravenhill last weekend.

However, D'Arcy is refusing to use the rotating of Jimmy Gopperth and Madigan at No 10 as an excuse.

"They are a little bit different, but you always have that whether it was Johnny (Sexton) and Ian; they were different players again and you get the week training with them and it's usually easy enough to transition," he said.

"There is definitely a growth in how we're playing and developing, I can see that from the start of the year to where we are now.

"We're in good shape, the majority of the squad is here for next year and that's going to have more growth over the summer as we continue to get used to the new way of doing things."

One man who won't be around is D'Arcy's long-term centre partner Brian O'Driscoll, and the likelihood is that the province won't be able to look outside to replace the departing legend.

One option is to shift the long-term No 12 outside to accommodate the increasingly impressive Noel Reid who is the province's joint-top try scorer this season and, according to D'Arcy, "the best passer in our squad".

"His distribution is fantastic," Leinster's most capped player continued. "I know that is something Matt likes. His all-round play has come really, really good.

"Each game he's playing he's getting better and better. He's hitting that age now where it's really make or break.

"He is 23-24. You are starting to enter that prime development stage as a senior rugby player. You've got two or three more years to really hit the ground running. At 25-26, you want to see him being the star player week in, week out."

Reid has certainly added a spark when he has been selected, but he is likely to have to wait a few more months before his time can come.

The more experienced men have the jersey for now and, despite not quite clicking for much of the season, they are determined to make it work before the campaign is complete.

Time is running out on them to click, but there is confidence among them that they can hit the heights of Franklin's Gardens again.

And, if they can marry that with the excellent forward play of recent months, then O'Connor should have a trophy in his hands at the end of his first season.

Irish Independent

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