Sport Rugby

Monday 19 February 2018

O'Connor shoulders heavy load

Ageing players and pressure to match his predecessors will test coach early in reign, says Brendan Fanning

There were a handful of excellent displays, with Jimmy Gopperth (above, scoring Leinster’s fourth try against Scarlets) getting man of the match on his competitive debut’
There were a handful of excellent displays, with Jimmy Gopperth (above, scoring Leinster’s fourth try against Scarlets) getting man of the match on his competitive debut’
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the summer of 2007 Kurt McQuilkin was appointed as Leinster's first dedicated defence coach. Creating the role had been a long time coming, and McQuilkin was a popular choice. He had a strong track record as a Leinster player, having first arrived over to Bective from New Zealand in the early '90s, and in the burgeoning defence industry McQuilkin looked like a man who would make his mark.

Leinster's league campaign that season got under way with a win over Edinburgh. One try conceded, which was not bad at all. Next up they enjoyed the unusual experience of winning away in Cardiff, which more than glossed over the fact that the tries conceded column had increased by 100 per cent.

By the time the Scarlets came to the RDS the next week, McQuilkin reckoned the lads were getting to grips with the system he had introduced, so a home win, with maybe a shutout, or only one try conceded, was on the cards. What a nice bit of business that would be.

"My undying memory is looking at Juan Gomez about seven (places) off the ruck and him getting carved like a Sunday roast by the Llanelli backs," McQuilkin recalls now.

In the pantheon of bad-value buys in Irish rugby, the Argentine prop can hold his own, which sadly he rarely did in a blue jersey. The system was crumbling, and nobody was more unstable than the man Leinster had hoped would be a big-time scrummager and all-round decent player.

"I was running water on and giving him messages heavy with expletives about getting closer to the ruck. 'Impossible!' he kept saying. 'It's not possible!' It didn't help that I had (Michael) Cheika and Mike Brewer in my ear – and they were running out of expletives – screaming that it needed to be fixed and fast.

"I just thought: 'Oh good Jesus, what's going on here?' When I got home and analysed it you could see the system wasn't bad, it was just about getting the right people in the right places. Even after that I was still a dark colour of grey. I didn't get much sleep for a while and the wife wasn't getting much chat at home either."

By the end of the next season he was sleeping just fine, and with a Heineken Cup on his CV, his missus couldn't shut him up.

The story of Joe Schmidt's early days in the Leinster job follows a similar path. He was wondering if his kids would get as far as the first mid-term break before he'd have to fish them out of school and move back to France. After a woeful pre-season followed by one win from his first four league games, one commentator declared that Schmidt, in his first senior posting, had lost the dressing room. It is now ranked alongside the prediction that computers would never catch on.

In Parc y Scarlets on Friday night, the Matt O'Connor era got up and running. Even allowing for the fact that the first tranche of games can mislead as easily as direct, there was huge interest in how it would pan out. For the first half hour, between the Scarlets' excellent line speed and Leinster's poor defence, it looked like it would be a long night for the away team. And yet they left with a five-try hammering of their hosts.

There were a handful of excellent displays, with Jimmy Gopperth getting man of the match on his competitive debut, and both Jordi Murphy and Brendan Macken very good going forward. The best of the lot in both directions, though, was loosehead Jack McGrath.

The reality is that Scarlets are on their uppers these days, and O'Connor knew that going over, but they were close to what's left of their full strength while Leinster had 10 frontliners watching on telly. So the statement was welcome. It doesn't alter the fact, however, that the coach has a harder job than any of his predecessors.

When Matt Williams arrived from Australia in 1999 as assistant to Mike Ruddock, professional rugby was in the same category as blind man's buff. He took over from Ruddock the next season, getting full control over a hugely talented group that had Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Denis Hickie at the heart of the backline, and Shane Byrne, Malcolm O'Kelly and Victor Costello down the spine of the pack.

Full control might be a stretch, for there were so many loose ends in the operation that someone, somewhere was always tripping up. Williams likes to recall in Pythonesque fashion those early days when they operated from a cabin in the car park of Anglesea Road. It was only a long spit away from the weights room: another cabin, which for one winter had no glass in the window, leaving the players to wrap rags around the bars to stop their hands freezing to the metal.

By the time Williams took off to Scotland in 2003, Leinster had taken the significant step of actually winning something: beating Munster in a cracking Celtic League final at Lansdowne Road, and with that they were a bit further along the road towards being contenders.

Williams' successor, Gary Ella, inherited the same crop of key players, but quickly ran into trouble with the senior shop stewards. They said he couldn't coach. He said they didn't like the idea of being treated the same as the rank-and-file merchants. In a split dressing room the weight was with the box-office boys and Ella didn't have the results to put them in their place.

Next came Declan Kidney. At the time his recruitment was a coup. Squeezed out of the Ireland set-up by Eddie O'Sullivan, who was then at the peak of his powers, Kidney had never been considered by Leinster fans as a likely leader. Then the curtain went back and it seemed like a terrific idea. He had taken Munster to two Heineken Cup finals before being promoted to the Ireland gig, so clearly here was a man who knew his way around a competition that everyone wanted to win.

As with Ella and Williams, Kidney was dealing from a decent deck. He was able to put an all-international backline into the field, as well as a pack that had Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings at its core, and when Felipe Contepomi was injured he had the excellent Kiwi David Holwell to plug the gap.

Under Kidney, Leinster raced into the Heineken Cup quarters in pole position and then got savaged by the Tigers who had come from the back of the grid. The next day Kidney was on his way back to Munster. That didn't go down so well.

Two coaches in as many seasons is crisis stuff. Despite their massive constituency Leinster hadn't engaged with the punters. The home European win over Bath in October 2004 drew a crowd of just 13,200 to Lansdowne Road. And that was just two seasons after virtually filling the place for the quarters and semis against Biarritz and Perpignan respectively.

In turning to the unproven Michael Cheika, Leinster took a hefty punt. Recommended by Alan Gaffney, he impressed at the interview during which he convinced them that if they wanted to develop young players then he was the man. Where he really scored though was in bullying Leinster as an organisation onto the main street of professional clubs in Europe.

In the process he averaged a dozen broken eggs per single serving of omelette. It was only when he was well gone, and Leinster had a Heineken Cup and another league title on their roll of honour, that the credit started piling up at his door.

Some thought Cheika would be a hard act for Joe Schmidt to follow. In fact, it was the opposite. 'Culture' is one of those terms that get bandied about now as if the word was coined specifically to describe the customs and ideas and behaviour of rugby clubs. For a long time Leinster's reputation, whatever about their ethos, was of a weak group who would never measure up to the earthy Munster crew. That had been sorted by the time Schmidt walked in the door.

Perhaps the only thing he didn't have going for him was that the core of the team was taking on the wrong age profile. That was balanced, however, by the fact that they were now winners and still had the potential to win again.

Which brings us to Matt O'Connor. Yet another Antipodean, closer in style to Schmidt than Cheika, this is the role he has been waiting for. With a CV that stretches from Canberra to Funabashi in Japan to Leicester, this is the first time he has got the top job in a top club. Being master of his own destiny is why Matt O'Connor quit England's top outfit.

He has walked into a very ambitious group with a good commercial engine and terrific facilities, the polar opposite of what Mike Ruddock and Matt Williams were dealing with in the days when pioneers were building shacks on the prairie. But O'Connor has got most of the stars at the wrong age: O'Driscoll (on his last lap at 34), Gordon D'Arcy (33), Leo Cullen (35), Isaac Boss (33), Eoin Reddan (32) and Mike Ross (34 at Christmas) are all slowing up. Even new recruit Mike McCarthy (32 in November) would have been a much better bet three years ago when Leinster went after him first, only to get knocked back.

Second-row is an area of real concern, for there is nothing about Quinn Roux or Tom Denton to suggest they have what Leinster really need. And outside centre – where Luke Fitzgerald is still being pencilled in as a possibility (although he went off with a tight groin on Friday) – is a real concern.

O'Connor may well be the man to hurry the next brigade through, but Leinster's cycle of success can't last uninterrupted. The coach's financial targets are a home draw in the Heineken Cup quarters and the same in the last four of the Pro12.

Just as Kurt McQuilkin's Scarlets experience didn't end his career as a defence coach, O'Connor's runaway start against the same opposition two nights ago doesn't give him any guarantees. The only thing he knows for sure is he will have his hands full. And it's a heavier load than any of those who went before him.



Joe Schmidt (2010-2013)

Lost three of his first four matches before going on a six-game winning streak.

Final record: 2 Heineken Cups, Pro12 title, Amlin Challenge Cup

Michael Cheika (2005-2010)

Lost the opener and then five wins in a row before losing at home to Bath in opening Heineken Cup game.

Final record: Heineken Cup, Magners League

Declan Kidney (2004-2005)

Unbeaten in first four and then lost a couple before great start to Heineken Cup campaign.

Final record: no silverware

Gary Ella (2003-2004)

One win in the opening six games and didn't qualify from their Heineken Cup pool.

Final record: no silverware

Matt Williams (2000-2003 *)

Won two of opening six and didn't get out of Heineken pool that contained Edinburgh, Northampton and Biarritz.

Final record: Celtic League

(* Asst coach from 1999)

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