Thursday 22 February 2018

O'Connor must make room for Madigan

Extra pace and quick-thinking vital in backline to give Leinster cutting edge

Ian Madigan has the qualities to be a match-winner
Ian Madigan has the qualities to be a match-winner
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor

Ruadhri O'Connor

For most coaches at most clubs, topping the table, reaching a final and winning your Heineken Cup pool would represent a solid first season in charge.

However, as Matt O'Connor knows at this stage, Leinster are not like most clubs.

Averaging a trophy a year since 2008, the RDS faithful have grown used to a diet of silverware and they will only be sated by another RaboDirect Pro12 title.

After Ulster were dismissed with a late semi-final surge to confirm one last day in the sun for Brian O'Driscoll, the feeling around the RDS was one of frustration rather than jubilation.

The grumbles may seem churlish, but the fans appear to be less than convinced by Joe Schmidt's replacement.

That has always been the problem for the former Leicester head coach, who knew he was taking over from a darling who was only moving to a different part of Dublin 4. Ireland's performances, with a squad largely made up of Leinster players, have given Leinster's fans a taste of what they were missing.

On Saturday night, they'll need to be very good to beat a Glasgow Warriors side on a mission to win a first trophy that would reward the years of progress under Gregor Townsend and, before him, Sean Lineen.

Last season, Schmidt's Leinster were blessed to get over the line in their home semi-final against the Scots; in March, O'Connor's charges squeezed past Saturday's opponents for a three-point win.

Indeed, May 2011 was the last time Leinster beat Glasgow by more than a single score at the RDS.

On paper, O'Connor can reflect on a solid first season in charge. In Europe, his side topped a pool involving eventual Top 14 and Premiership finalists (Castres and Northampton) before crashing out at the hands of the eventual champions, while in the Pro12 they finished top of the table and won their semi-final.

But to turn it from solid to success the coach must get his selection right in order to get the upper hand on a talented, well-coached and physically strong Warriors side and give himself breathing space for next season.

FIND A ROLE FOR MADIGAN

There has been no Irish rugby played since Ian Madigan's entry to the RDS changed the likely final line-up and, given his 'hokey-cokey' Ireland selection, the 25-year-old's match-winning cameo has lingered in the mind.

The injection of pace, quick thinking and his ability to come up with something different marks Madigan out from the crowd and, in a season when Leinster's backline has largely failed to click, his talents will be needed to unlock a good Glasgow defence.

The problem O'Connor has is whether to stick with the Jimmy Gopperth, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll combination he has trusted in almost all of his big games to date or to twist with something different.

With O'Driscoll's place surely sacrosanct in his final game and Gopperth having played well against Ulster, D'Arcy would look the most vulnerable.

Most of the province's best rugby has been played with a distributor at No 12, with Noel Reid impressing, and D'Arcy looks like being moved out one to cover O'Driscoll's vacancy next season.

Whether he gets one last chance to dovetail with his long-term partner remains to be seen, but Madigan's absence is denying Leinster their spark.

MURPHY'S LAW OR O'BRIEN'S WAY

The sight of Leinster's two top try-scorers sitting in their shirts and ties during the semi-final told a story of a squad few other European rivals can match. While Reid is still seen as one for the future, the man sitting beside him was a fully fit Jordi Murphy, whose three tries in three Heineken Cup appearances got him into the European top-scorer ranks and whose performances saw him finish the Six Nations an Ireland international.

In Argentina, he is likely to build on the two caps he has won thus far, but the return of Sean O'Brien has seen the 22-year-old pushed out of the running for a starting slot.

It is hard to argue with a starting back-row of Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip but, given O'Brien's lack of rugby and match sharpness, the dynamic Murphy could get the nod this weekend.

ENGINE ROOM DIFFICULTIES

Leo Cullen is close to the end, but will he get to lift one last trophy before moving upstairs?

Matt O'Connor has favoured younger players this season and, while Devin Toner's performance against Ulster suggests that he is at the top of an ever improving game, Quinn Roux's latest anonymous outing would suggest that there's life in Cullen yet.

He may not have grabbed Madigan's headlines, but the old stager's influence was felt after his introduction and, while Mike McCarthy's return from injury might mean another bench cameo, he'll have a role to play.

Irish Independent

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