Tuesday 15 October 2019

Neil Francis: Fifth place is not even close to being good enough for Leinster

Matt O'Connor will see out his contract but he needs a dramatic reversal to earn a new one, says Neil Francis

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connor
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Not too much to add to the hubbub and post-match vagaries of last weekend's Leinster performance.

Their set-piece and breakdown work was good, a nod so in the direction of Leo Cullen. There was courage too but we expected that. You don't praise the postman for delivering the post. Albert Pierrepoint, in his book The Executioner, pointedly remembers the remarkable bravery of some of the people he was about to hang. It didn't matter a whit whether these people were lionhearts or a whimpering mess, the net result was always the same: they got their necks stretched.

Leinster were stoic in adversity against Toulon and came bubbling up with resistance but the net result would be as predictable as a hanging in Holloway Prison. Relief that there was no meek capitulation masks the fact that Leinster should have won the semi-final. People will now reflect on Matt O'Connor's two seasons in charge and call for him to be replaced. Be careful what you wish for.

Maybe there is merit in the Leinster squad's insistence that O'Connor knows what he is doing and that there is a medium- to long-term strategy to take the franchise forward. I can't see it and by 'it' I mean everything from recruitment to on-field strategy to academy integration to a target-driven plan to a reliable and consistent mode of play.

Now that the season - O'Connor's second in charge - is over we can say one thing for certain: Leinster can no longer be regarded as a poison chalice. They have not won a trophy this season, they are playing a pretty sloppy brand of rugby and they will do well to get out of their qualifying pool next season.

No longer the field of dreams or lofty notions of another dynasty. Fifth in the Guinness Pro12 means that they are the fifth best team in the league; that is great if you are Southampton or Everton, it means you are the best of the rest. Leinster will finish just ahead of Connacht, Scarlets and Edinburgh. That is something to think about in your end-of-season review.

A couple of points need to be made here. If a Lions team was heading off south of the equator in June, Leinster would conceivably have seven players on the plane - Healy, McGrath, Cronin, O'Brien, Heaslip, Sexton and Kearney. You can debate either way but all of these players would be in the mix. Five of those players are already Lions from 2013 but the point that needs to be reinforced, just in case we forgot about Leinster finishing fifth, is that they have a serious roster.

They have 13 of the 23-man squad that won a second consecutive Six Nations Championship. Fifth place with that quality is not even close to being good enough. They play well and above themselves for Ireland. They underperform and are listless in blue. How damaging is it that the bulk of our national team are playing crap rugby in an underachieving side?

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I talked about the WWE a while back and while wrestling is not a sport, that is not what draws people to it. It is entertainment. People, fans, want to be entertained. Last week we had the unedifying spectacle of Aaron Maugen apologising to the Canterbury Crusader fans for the rubbish they were producing on the pitch.

The seven-time Super 15 champions were thumped at home by the Waikato Chiefs. A Canterbury side with Israel Dagg, Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock, and Luke Romano all on the pitch. Todd Blackadder's goose might be cooked here as fans got up and left the stadium. When you win titles and you still have a decent squad there is a responsibility on your organisation to continue that trend.

Leinster had over 60 points put on them this season by Munster. They have won nine of 19 matches. They are neither entertaining nor winning which is not a good mix. It is not good for business either. How are season ticket sales going for next year?

I suspect that things won't improve a whole lot next season. I do not expect that Leinster will sack Matt O'Connor at the end of this season and I assume he will fulfil his contract to the end of next season. But it will take a dramatic reversal of the current trend for him to hang on to his job. Yet here is where Leinster will have a problem and the owner of the club who have just beaten them in the Heineken semi-final will be the first to experience it.

We know that Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman, Ali Williams et al are going to retire at the end of this season and we know there will be a plethora of superstars who will be paid enormous salaries to replace them. What hasn't been broadcast is that Bernie Laporte is also leaving.

Prior to the former French coach's arrival at Toulon they had won very little indeed. The reason for that was because Philippe Saint-André was the incumbent before him and from a rugby perspective we know the gates are down, the lights are flashing but there is no train coming.

You can have a squad full of galacticos but as long as the coach has a room-temperature IQ they are not going to win anything. If I was Mourad Boudjellal, I would pay my biggest cheque to get a replacement for Bernie. He did a great job keeping the egos at bay and he got them to play a multi-dimensional game, something that used be outside his skill-set. Toulon will not be half the side they are if he is not replaced with the requisite quality of coach.

Back to Leinster's problem. If you are going to replace your coach make sure that the replacement is better than the incumbent. I can't see a whole lot of quality out there.

In the Pro12, Gregor Townsend is the best coach in the league. Glasgow Warriors play the best style of rugby in the league and they are aggressive and competitive in all areas. It has taken two to three years to get them there but I sense this is their season.

Steve Tandy of the Ospreys is also a no-nonsense direct coach and the Ospreys will be more than a handful in the play-offs. The thing is neither would be approached and neither would go to Leinster. There is no point looking elsewhere in the Pro12.

There are plenty of good coaches in the Aviva Premiership. Quite a few are Irish but I don't think David Humphreys, Mark McCall or Conor O'Shea would either come back or be a good fit. Mike Ford is a work in progress at Bath. Dean Richards has an immense presence and is the cleverest coach in the Aviva but he has blood on his hands. The best fit would be Rob Baxter of Exeter, a real rugby man who has his team of non-stars playing brilliant rugby. I guess though that he is the Guy Noves of English rugby and will be there until he dies.

The French-speaking coaches just wouldn't work, including the iconic but too pretty Fabien Galthie. There are Paddys in France. What about Fast Eddie? Maybe not! Bernard Jackman could be a possibility down the line. He certainly has the ambition and technically is very good. His book might not have helped his case.

There isn't a huge amount in the SANZA ranks. There will be a call for Ewen McKenzie. He is available and he did a good job with the underperforming Queensland Reds. He has a strange personality and might not be everyone's cup of tea but I suspect he will be picked up within the year. The only other outstanding candidate . . . well he has already coached Leinster. Leinster would never countenance picking an unproven coach. A former Irish international or even a host of really clever schools coaches. They have, though, picked a few surprises that have been spectacularly successful. They have a year to pull a rabbit from the hat.

Matt O'Connor won't be going anywhere next season and gets the chance to work his shadow squad during the RWC 2015 hiatus. A team that has won the B&I Cup on a continuous basis. An academy stacked with Leinster under 18s, 19s and 20s who have won every Interpro series for the last 10 years and who continually provide more than half of the squad for successful Ireland under 20s. What an opportunity.

Why buy quality players when they are already in your system? Transition, if you want to call it that, should not mean a drop-off in the standards not necessarily recognised or associated with a stellar group of players. They are gone but the template, the richly talented roster and the hard-earned ethos are still there and it requires a talented and prescient coach to extract the best out of the them. That indisputably is not happening. Nor will it next season.

Maybe what I have just said is 'noise' - but the noise is getting an awful lot louder as the performances continue to frustrate and undermine.

Normally you can sign off a column by saying something like next season will be very interesting. I can't do that because I believe it won't.

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