Saturday 16 November 2019

Sometimes it's good to start all over again

The heat is on for Leinster's coach to change tactics after a frustrating campaign

It will be interesting to see how Matt O’Connor reviews his own modus operandi in the wake of this campaign
It will be interesting to see how Matt O’Connor reviews his own modus operandi in the wake of this campaign
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Friday night in the RDS: Leinster versus Treviso in a game the home team needed to put to bed for all the wrong reasons.

It was the first time in 11 years that Ireland's most successful province have gone down the final straight in the Guinness Pro12 with more anxiety than ambition. And how it showed. They would have run out the gate at the final whistle had they not been obliged to hang around to say goodbye to Gordon D'Arcy.

The prospect of such a fine servant being sent off on the back of a humiliating defeat haunted Leinster all the way to the 79th minute. After picking up a range of titles in the way you might collect the dry cleaning, this has been galling for their supporters.

Between 1995 and 2009 they had just two Celtic League titles to celebrate from any competition. Since then, between Europe and the league, it has been party central in D4: three Heineken Cups, a European Challenge Cup and another two Pro12 titles. And now an empty space on the sideboard where the next trophy is supposed to be.

It's a hop, skip and jump from there to identifying coach Matt O'Connor as the pooper. It's like he arrived when the place was hopping, complained of feeling unwell, and then barfed on the carpet. Naturally enough, the punters want him out.

You don't have to read the Loonies on Line brigade to feel the heat building for regime change. Leinster looked so loose on Friday night, so lacking in direction compared to the bottom-two team they were up against, that even the LoL sounded credible.

There are elements in the Leinster fan base who would struggle to distinguish a rugby ball from a sweet potato, but currently they have been joined by those who have a sound grasp on the game. The aggregate is that Matt O'Connor needs to start over.

Yet this is a coach who has taken Leinster into the knockout stages of Europe's premier competition two years running, and has won a Guinness Pro12 title. When he was at Welford Road, he was a key figure in back-to-back Premiership titles, in 2009 and 2010.

With Leinster, his European expeditions ran aground against Toulon. Over the last three seasons the richest and best-equipped side in the 20-year history of European competition have lost just three of 18 pool games - it didn't stop them topping their group each time - and are nine from nine in knockout rugby. It is a record. Losing to them in extra-time in Marseille last month hardly constitutes a mortifying entry on O'Connor's cv.

His troubles began to bubble to the surface during the Six Nations. Typically when the big boys are away Leinster use the depth of their squad to wade into the four league fixtures in that Test window to emerge with a fistful of points. For the last four seasons that haul has yielded 19, 19, 15 and 13 points respectively - a down-payment on a home draw in the league semi-finals. This season their return was a measly eight.

Coaches are judged on their results, so he expected to get it in the neck. If you accept that context is central to any story however you need to look at Leinster's situation. Without trawling through all the great players who contributed to their glory years 2009-2012, and have moved on, just focus on the midfield. Johnny Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll were untouchable. Jimmy Gopperth, Ian Madigan and Ben Te'o are not.

O'Connor has compounded the drop-off in quality by producing a team that frequently are not good to watch. If you're paying in at the gate this matters. And it matters even more if the attempt to win ugly results in losing even uglier. The irony on Friday night was that they tried to play a load of rugby when they needed to be direct. It got to pass-the-parcel status.

So if you're struggling to keep the fans happy then the least you need is some positive press to limit the damage. Given a choice between unblocking a drain and opening his door to the media O'Connor would sooner fish out his rubber gloves and toolbox and get on with it. The drain, that is.

It's unlikely he would have been allowed to pursue this policy had Leinster not lost a very experienced and clued-in communications manager just six months after O'Connor got on board.

The effect of that particular departure was perfectly illustrated by the recent spat that developed between O'Connor and Joe Schmidt over the availability of international players for provincial duty. By moaning in the media about how hard it is to find something nice to wear when your big brother has raided the wardrobe, O'Connor made two errors: the first was to demean what was left to play around with when the international fashion show was in full swing (even if the point was perfectly valid), and the second was to stir up the hornets' nest in Lansdowne Road.

Had his predecessor at Leinster not become the boss hog with Ireland this probably wouldn't have mattered. But it's Joe Schmidt we're talking about, and pretty much everything matters in his world.

Thus two weeks ago we were notified of a press briefing in the Aviva about the Player Management Programme. In case you had forgotten, this system originally was the brainchild of Eddie O'Sullivan and Liam Hennessy when their review of the 2003 World Cup suggested we needed to better manage the time players spent on their feet. It made sense, and still does. Unfortunately, it also causes pain to those provinces with the highest number of Ireland players. So if they're not actually away in a green jersey, their active time with the province is limited so that their performance in green is top-notch.

We get it. Inviting us down to a briefing, however, was less about seeing if we understood it and more about slapping Matt O'Connor back into place for using bum stats in the public domain to say that he didn't get it, or want it.

Picking a row with Joe Schmidt is like claiming Mother Teresa was a dirty fighter. She could have had a switchblade strapped to each sandal but no one would want to listen. None of this will keep O'Connor awake at night. Yet it should concern him. It's as well to have good relations with head office as bad ones, and the manner in which Leinster were ordered to get Seán Cronin and Luke Fitzgerald under the knife - rather than keep them available for the last one or two rounds of the league - illustrates this.

Given their current positions there may be more speed-bumps ahead for the two coaches.

Those who work with O'Connor and know him well speak highly of him as a technical coach, and as a bloke with a great sense of humour and a generous streak. From our limited exposure to him that all stands up.

They also acknowledge that while O'Connor feels he has to 'de-programme' players when he gets them back from Camp Ireland that he could also learn from Schmidt's zero tolerance of players repeating mistakes in the apparent hope of getting a different outcome. O'Connor wants players to follow his plan, but input some thought themselves. And when they get it wrong it's not the end of the world.

Schmidt on the other hand wants them to think for as long as it takes to understand every detail of what he wants them to do. Then do it. The terror of getting it wrong usually means it is done right. And his record proves it works. As you watched Leinster on Friday night, at times seemingly making it up as they went along, it was impossible not to think of Schmidt blowing a head gasket.

It will be interesting to see if Matt O'Connor reviews his own modus operandi in the wake of the campaign that is almost at an end. It has been short of the catastrophe as presented by a rump of their fans, but they have good reason to shuffling their feet. When the coach's contract ends in 12 months' time, he needs to have calmed them down.

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