Saturday 18 November 2017

Tony Ward: Rousing triumph means O'Connor can finally step out of Schmidt's shadow

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor shares the celebrations with full-back Rob Kearney after the province claimed another Pro12 title. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor shares the celebrations with full-back Rob Kearney after the province claimed another Pro12 title. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

On the big days, quality teams generally produce quality performances and on a balmy Saturday evening at the RDS, Leinster did just that. A second-half tour de force tore the second best team in the competition apart, with a full 22 points separating the sides at the final blast of Nigel Owens' whistle.

This was Leinster winning the Leinster way – with style and panache. It was the day they married their precision and high-speed intensity. They did it against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens in December, but seldom, if at all, since then.

The knives may not have been out, but there had been rumblings of discontent. Questions were being asked of the head coach. It didn't matter who took over – Matt O'Connor or Alex Ferguson – following Joe Schmidt was mission impossible.

So, while he may not be shouting it from the rooftops, O'Connor was the biggest winner of all when the cup and trinkets were handed out.

This was also O'Connor's team playing Leinster rugby his way, and that takes some doing. And with respect to Rob Penney being named the Pro12 coach of the tournament, the two best coaches had their wares on show in D4, and O'Connor won the top prize hands down.

Gregor Townsend is well on the way to establishing a new power in Scottish and – I hope – European rugby, but the lasting impression, with Leinster doing their thing, was of a single-minded head coach now the commander in chief.

Professional rugby is first and foremost about winning, but in the case of Leinster with the bar already set, it's also about doing it in style. On both counts, O'Connor and his charges came up trumps.

They could have hardly had a more disappointing start when losing their talisman Brian O'Driscoll on his last hurrah in the opening minutes, but cometh the hour, cometh the man as, once again, Ian Madigan strode onstage strutting his stuff with the type of confidence that, at times, defies logic.

He is not new to the inside-centre position (he started there between Johnny Sexton and O'Driscoll in last year's final) but he's getting better at it following on from the previous midfield masterclass delivered against Ulster, again as a replacement, a fortnight ago.

And while Gordon D'Arcy may not be getting any younger, there's still enough in him for Saturday's pairing to make the desired centre impact a level up.

Schmidt already recognises the potential on that count and I'm sure he already has a plan in place for Resistencia and Tucuman City in the coming weeks.

Bear in mind, too, that O'Connor fielded a team with eight different starters from the Blues' final line-up against Ulster last year and four more changes on the bench.

Injuries, of course, played a part, but the fact that over half of Saturday's match-day squad was different from the decider a year ago represents some transformation.

Along with Jono Gibbes, whose contribution has been immeasurable, O'Connor has added further to the solidity and aggression of the defence, while leaving the way open to attacking the Schmidt way.

The ideal blend has still to be struck consistently, but when it comes close – as against Northampton and the Warriors – the cocktail is irresistible.

Throw in a bucket full of attacking talent coming through the academy and the British & Irish Cup-winning system and it puts Leinster in a mighty good place, irrespective of any sugar daddy investment. Staying the pace with the Toulons of this world won't be easy – but give me the Leinster way every time.

In individual terms, there were massive performances from Zane Kirchner, man of the match Sean Cronin, Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan, Madigan and, indeed, the entire Leinster backline.

Up front, too, they were immense, but Cronin, Devin Toner (what a season), Shane Jennings, Mike McCarthy and Rhys Ruddock were the most eye-catching.

But it was the collective, that hardened unity of purpose which made the move from Schmidt to O'Connor appear almost seamless on the biggest day of the Pro12 season.

When they were under the cosh into the wind in the first half they hung on in before striking with a typical try when Kirchner (brilliant throughout) opened up the path to the line for the ever alert Jennings and, in the process, ensuring it was the home team that were dictating the agenda going into the break.

Psychologically that try, converted by Gopperth, was massive given its timing and the elements on the day.

That said, no one could have predicted the second-half masterclass in blue or the 22-point drubbing shipped by a Glasgow side held pointless in that final 40.

The final scoreline paints a somewhat distorted picture on what went before, yet when Leinster are in this mood, the dye is cast.

Injury may have deprived O'Driscoll of the individual 'slán libh' he would have liked, but Cullen got to make his no-nonsense stand in the final quarter.

The retiring duo could scarcely have asked for more as the other 21 ensured the two most iconic playing figures throughout this period of unprecedented success got the send- off they deserved.

Put simply, the O'Driscoll/Cullen legacy is complete.

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