Monday 18 December 2017

Leinster can recover next season with correct structures in place

Matt O'Connor's interview after the defeat against Ulster was, ironically, probably his most honest and clearest yet
Matt O'Connor's interview after the defeat against Ulster was, ironically, probably his most honest and clearest yet

Victor Costello

There comes a time in a season when you just want the end to come so you can start again with a clean slate.

This would normally happen around this period as you spend your time watching the play-offs of competitions you would rather be in.

Matt O'Connor's interview after the Ulster game was, ironically, probably his most honest and clearest yet. With the loss last weekend, he knows his immediate future is out of his own hands and the Sky interviewer pushed him into this admission with no limits on the questioning.

O'Connor had a guilty, despondent look that showed he knows the media deluge is coming with little or no time to prove himself.

Losing a game of such magnitude effectively spelled the end of his side's season. Leinster have been Ulster's bogey team for many seasons and keeping that up is always more important than ever in a World Cup year.

For most of the Leinster team, through years of success, the concentration and effort will be focused on the World Cup. For those left back in UCD, there will be a long drawn-out post-mortem on this season which, when the dust settles, should not take a lot to fix.

Inter-provincial games have always got an extra bite. For the last few seasons, Leinster have been able to swagger into the Kingspan Stadium or the RDS and the performance in the game would inherently match the confidence off the pitch.


Last week the frustration in the players, realising this was not the case any more, resulted in two yellow cards and countless penalties.

The first yellow card was particularly ridiculous and John Lacey, a ref who has a great reputation both as a player and now a referee, played to the Ulster crowd and carded Sean O'Brien.

The incident barely warranted a penalty and Lacey with his experience should have known that this wouldn't be O'Brien's form either.

Rob Kearney's yellow card was a little more obvious and, to my mind, suggested that this Leinster team are not confident in their defensive structure.

Any team that has full confidence in their defence will let the opposition have the ball, with a view to trusting themselves to defend any attack.

It is easy for the fans and media to point out that the Leinster defence is not up to scratch and there is no doubt that every other team that dissects them will notice that after three or four phases of play, there are gaps in the defensive wall as seen by the Iain Henderson try.

However bad the defensive structures are, it is next to impossible to implement them when playing with 14 men for 60 minutes.

What Leinster need to do is forget about explaining the season's misgivings and concentrate on correcting it while the spotlight is on the World Cup. With the right structures in place, this squad can compete again next season.

There is a need in Leinster for a defence coach. The most successful teams over the years have put more focus on defence rather than attack.

Rod Macqueen's Australian team in 1999, Sir Clive Woodward's England in 2003 and more recently and closer to home, the Michael Cheika era in Leinster.

Cheika drained opponents trying to break down Leinster's defence and as a result they could attack a weakened opposition. We hear lots about error counts and unforced errors. Leinster, throughout the season, have been their own worst enemy.

The only team that really beat them this year was themselves. When a team is tangled in a mess of inconsistency in every facet of the game and yet can still pull out a standard of performance when needed, this means that the team has to go back to basics.

While there is a lot of calling for O'Connor's head, that would be a fruitless blame game reaction to a management group that just needs redirection.

For many, the worst has happened and most of Ireland can watch the Champions Cup final with little or no interest.

Ulster and Munster still fighting in the Pro12 leaves the spotlight off Leinster for the next six weeks. This time should be spent considering selection decisions throughout the year, whether forced or not.


When it comes to the player welfare system, nothing would be more damaging to the players than the short turnaround from the Toulon game to the Ulster game last week.

Ironically, if players had have been managed properly, Leinster wouldn't have had a must-win game in the Kingspan Stadium in the first place.

The management need to finish the season well and fight hard for their player availability next year, as their own reputation is on the line for one more year. This just might be the breathing space that Leinster need.

Irish Independent

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