Wednesday 18 September 2019

Tony Ward: Matt O'Connor got a raw deal but Leinster fans must stand by new man

Leo Cullen in pensive mood on his way to Leinster training yesterday
Leo Cullen in pensive mood on his way to Leinster training yesterday
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I've been really impressed by the manner in which the England players have reacted to their ignominious World Cup exit in the opening fortnight of Champions Cup rugby.

Four of the six English Premiership representatives - Saracens, Northampton, Leicester and Wasps - are top of their pools, with two wins from two.

In addition, Bath are second behind Wasps in the Pool of Death having beaten Leinster in their opening game on Saturday.

Overall, the English sides have won 10 of their 11 matches in the competition, with Exeter the only team to taste defeat.

Irish players have generally reintegrated speedily into their provinces in times past following World Cup disappointment.

In 2011-12, Leinster won the Heineken Cup, beating Ulster in the final, with Munster also reaching the knockout stages. Leinster, though, had nowhere near the same number of players involved in the previous World Cup as they did this year.

In 2007-08, following our World Cup from hell, Munster went on to land a second European Cup, although they were the only Irish qualifier flying the flag in the last eight.

So while there is no hard and fast rule, the general trend seems to be that disappointed players return with renewed determination to their clubs/provinces and manage to exorcise the pain of early World Cup exits.

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Certainly in the case of the England players, there is no sense of morale or confidence dented.

On the contrary, watching the English players in action in this opening fortnight, the impression is of shackles off - most of their clubs' victories have been achieved in some style.

New England coach Eddie Jones can only be champing at the bit and thanking the good Lord for the timing of his appointment in succession to Stuart Lancaster.

Watching Lancaster in the stand in the Ricoh Arena for Wasps' substantial victory over three-in-a-row champions Toulon, it was difficult not to feel for the previous incumbent.

That said he had his shot and failed - in modern-day professional rugby, much like soccer, the demand for success is instant.

I hate that impatience; while I firmly believe that Lancaster would have eventually succeeded in his mission, time is not something coaches get.

I still feel Matt O'Connor got a raw deal at Leinster, and I sincerely hope his premature exit was not a portent of things to come.

It is imperative that Leo Cullen is given time to establish himself and his new management team.

The Leinster faithful must stand by their man.

Leo the coach may not prove the same successful influence as Leo the inspirational skipper but the very least he deserves is the time to establish the winning philosophy he hopes to inculcate.

Much the same sentiment applies to Ulster's Les Kiss, another coach under pressure on the basis of one European outing, albeit a particularly poor one.

To surrender a nine-point lead and fail to avail of two yellow cards at Ulster's Belfast bastion was disappointing in the extreme.

Saracens were superb but Ulster for the final hour were much like Leinster against Wasps in the same period the previous week.

Whether the coincidence was World Cup-related I don't know but certainly the collapse was unacceptable.

Saracens have become a serious force in European rugby over recent seasons, and while they are an acquired taste, I am impressed by what I see.

Central to their success has been their director of rugby Mark McCall. The former Ulster and Ireland centre oozes calmness that clearly transmits to the players in times of crisis.

On Friday, inspired by the Vunipola brothers and the much-criticised Owen Farrell, they produced a masterclass in tactical awareness, with the final scoreline of 27-9 fully reflective of their superiority.

By contrast, Leinster as expected did deliver a performance of substance at the Rec. In the end, a George Ford penalty separated the sides - good though Farrell was in Belfast, Ford was even better.

He is a class act, blessed with all the attributes a top out-half needs. With his father Mike - Bath's head coach - keeping him grounded, the only way for this exceptionally talented No 10 is up - we are looking at a potential new Dan Carter.

For Leinster, the scrum was their ultimate undoing; that aspect is fixable. What they need more than anything is patience.

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