Saturday 18 November 2017

Tony Ward: Time running out for Matt O'Connor

Matt O'Connor has a case to answer as his Leinster team continue to perform well below their best. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Matt O'Connor has a case to answer as his Leinster team continue to perform well below their best. Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
The Belfast reception for McIlroy was typical of rugby football and its central contribution to peace on this island. SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What Clermont did to Munster on the high altar that is Thomond Park a few short weeks ago, the Reds inflicted on Leinster in almost equal measure on St Stephen's Day.

It was a masterclass in bullying as for the second time this season the three-time European champions turned up in body only when facing their biggest and most deadly rivals.

They came a distant second in terms of intensity at the Aviva and despite a late Shane Jennings try, were even further away this time out.

The bottom line is that Munster coach Anthony Foley is in a much better place than he has been in recent weeks, because the loser of this coaching head to head with Matt O'Connor was bound to see the pressure raised again.

Leo Cullen is learning his trade as forwards coach and that takes time, but the loss of Jono Gibbes has proved every bit as catastrophic as most, this observer included, feared it might be.

O'Connor hasn't helped himself with his tetchy relationship with the media and by extension the fans.

Saturday's showdown with Ulster at the RDS is now massive. Another defeat for Leinster and it could be the beginning of the end for the head coach. When performance and results dip in tandem, the coach, whoever he is, has a case to answer.


I still feel that with so many key players set to return, not least Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien, Leinster can come good. But equally, with confidence draining and performance levels dropping, the soccer principle now applies - and for O'Connor that means 'Houston we have a problem'.

I have tried to apply a sense of reason and objective criticism; I have defended Leinster's style of play - because there's not much else you can do with so little quality go-forward ball - but on this must-win occasion, there was no defence. The Blues were awful.

Trying to take solace in individual performances would be clutching at straws, with all the most meaningful contributions coming from those in red.

Munster won all the 50-50s, bossed the breakdown and looked the hungrier, not least through a well-organised, aggressive defence. It is limited rugby but is the perfect formula for Munster at this point in time.

I still hate seeing Felix Jones spend so much time clearing out rucks but credit where it is due on this occasion as the stand-in skipper, like fellow Leinster man Conway with his superb early aerial take, set the tone for what followed.

Indeed it was a good night for all three Leinster-born men in the Munster backline as Ian Keatley, not for the first time, won the battle of the tens.

It would be harsh to judge Ian Madigan on this 80 minutes alone as his time at out-half has been limited due to circumstances beyond his control.

Certainly, though, Keatley has given Joe Schmidt significant food for thought as he ponders who should fill the No 10 shirt in Rome in the absence of Johnny Sexton.

Madigan would still be my choice but the Leinster forwards sure aren't helping his cause.

Beyond that key head-to-head taken by Keatley, all the big performances on the night came from those in red. I was particularly impressed with Conway, Jones, Denis Hurley, Duncan Casey (a revelation, though not yet the finished article), Billy Holland (an immense presence) plus the entire back-row and indeed both loose-forward replacements, Paddy Butler and Dave O'Callaghan.

There is a brutish presence about O'Callaghan that marks him out as one worth watching. He will certainly be on Schmidt's radar.

Whatever luck was going went Munster's way, but then the harder you work the luckier you get. I refer specifically to Darragh Fanning's sin-binning on the hour, which appeared harsh to say the least.

It's not often Nigel Owens gets it wrong, but this call lacked his usual feel for the moment. It made for a ten-point penalty and effectively finished the game as a contest, although the Leinster goose appeared well cooked anyway.

At Ravenhill, the Ulster faithful were treated to a derby high on endeavour but low on quality - Craig Gilroy's brilliantly taken try apart.

Even that had a touch of illegality built in, with Stuart Olding deliberately taking Jack Carty out of the frame for Gilroy to race through that well established Tommy Bowe route to the line.

Gilroy, Dan Tuohy, Rob Herring and to a lesser extent Robbie Diack had their moments, but a game of relentlessly poor kicking out of hand made for poor entertainment.

Factor in Glasgow's victory over Edinburgh allied to the Ospreys topping the Scarlets and it leaves a top six of Ospreys, Glasgow, Munster, Ulster, Leinster and Connacht.

As we are only at the mid-point in the season it would be silly to be drawing any play-off conclusions just yet.

That said, were Connacht to lose a third straight inter-pro, at home to Munster, and Leinster to come up short at home to Ulster, then alarm bells will be ringing,. given a possible seven-point gap between the top four and the rest.

Whatever else, the heat is on the main man at Belfield for sure.

Ravenhill Reminder of rugby's role in peace process

If the fare on offer at Ravenhill was average enough, the half-time entertainment was top drawer.

The appearance of Rory McIlroy, a loyal and committed fan of Ulster rugby, added a sense of warmth and pride to the occasion.

Far be it for me to comment on the rights or wrongs of his Olympic decision. All I know is that the Belfast reception was typical of rugby football and its central contribution to peace on this island since the Troubles first began.

Rugby has long been a unifying force and while you can be sure there was a segment in the Kingspan genuinely hurt by the decision of their most famous sporting son to opt for Ireland rather than Britain, they didn't show it.

It tallied with everything I have ever experienced throughout my own long association with sport and with life north of the border.

The reception for McIlroy sent out the most positive message imaginable.

As for 'Sweet Caroline' blaring out over the stadium tannoy mid interview, 'Oh dear' said it all. Class response from a class act.

Irish Independent

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