Sport Rugby

Tuesday 15 October 2019

O'Connor well positioned to keep Blues among Euro elite

Conor George

THE presence of so many Leinster players in the Lions squad for this summer's tour to Australia will be a huge encouragement to incoming coach Matt O'Connor.

Six of the squad he is inheriting will be in Australia during the summer. Another – Mike Ross – can feel somewhat aggrieved at being overlooked, while Ian Madigan's candidacy as a potential 'bolter' was seriously discussed by the Lions' selection committee. He will also be stimulated by what will surely be a high representation in the Ireland squad that will tour North America and Canada under Les Kiss' direction next month, and by the likely presence of Brian O'Driscoll next season, even if he is only available on a selective basis.

Leinster have made a habit of getting the right man at the correct time when it comes to their head coach.

At the time of Michael Cheika's appointment in 2005, Leinster CEO Mick Dawson admitted they were taking something of a "punt" on the Australian.

His coaching experience at the time was limited to four years with Randwick in Sydney and one year with Italian side Padova, but in his reputation as an uncompromising, tough back-row forward, Dawson saw something Leinster needed at the time: a hardness.

Even when Munster were marauding through Europe on their manic quest for Heineken Cup glory there was always the feeling that Leinster were a sleeping giant.

weaponry

They clearly had the necessary weaponry. In their first Heineken Cup game under Cheika the starting team consisted of nine Ireland or future Ireland internationals, and Felipe Contepomi, with another three Ireland players on the bench.

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Brian O'Driscoll didn't feature until round five of the pool stage. Rightly or wrongly Leinster were regarded as a team with limitless potential but one with a soft core. In close games the expectation was they would fold.

That was neither entirely fair nor accurate, but Cheika's reputation as a brusque character is well earned.

He recognised that flair alone was not going to be good enough to succeed and developed a hard edge to Leinster. In his first season they reached the Heineken Cup semi-final, the quarter-final in the second before suffering a set-back when not qualifying from their pool in his third season (2007/08).

He did secure Leinster their first trophy since 2001 in the Celtic League and, in his final season, the Holy Grail was finally reached with that first Heineken Cup title.

And then came Joe Schmidt. The skills of the players he inherited were never in doubt. It was a case of teasing them out, while reinvigorating the likes of O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip and continuing to cultivate the hard edge introduced by Cheika.

It is easy to say now, but Leinster could not have appointed a coach more suited to their needs than Schmidt.

He brought a technical aspect to the job that was over and beyond anything the Leinster players had experienced under the previous two coaches.

He married the physicality of Nathan Hines, Richardt Strauss and Sean O'Brien with the silken skills of O'Driscoll, Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa, all built around the extraordinary talent of Jonathan Sexton in the pivot's seat.

It continues to be a successful fusion of the two. Leinster have the hardness of Cian Healy, Leo Cullen, Heaslip and O'Brien, while continuing to luxuriate in the outrageous talents of Sexton, Gordon D'Arcy and Rob Kearney.

Leinster team manager Guy Easterby intimated this week that O'Connor will be charged with "building on Joe's good work," while "tweaking" things to suit his own particular tastes. The good news for Leinster players and supporters is that he is an attack-minded coach. Since joining Leicester in 2008 as assistant to Heyneke Meyer, he has championed the philosophy that the team who scores more points wins. Leicester have never finished outside the top two in the regulation season under O'Connor and last season narrowly missed out on appearing in an eighth consecutive Premiership final. They won the Premiership in 2008/09 and 2009/10 and added the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 2011/12.

They play Harlequins in Saturday's Premiership semi-finals having finished the regulation season in second place, again. It is probable O'Connor will have to do more than "tweak" things with Leinster, however, as there is a very real sense that the current team is reaching the end of an era.

O'Driscoll, D'Arcy, Cullen and Mike Ross are all in the twilight of their careers and will likely have to be replaced on O'Connor's watch. He will also have to manage without the considerable influence of Sexton.

Nacewa is also on the way out and, while Mike McCarthy joins next season, he is pushing 32 years of age and there are another group of players – including Shane Jennings (31), Isaac Boss (33) and Eoin Reddan (32) – for whom replacements will also have to be found.

The biggest problem facing O'Connor is, ironically enough, the same one facing his predecessor in his new job with Ireland: how to replace O'Driscoll?

Schmidt is better positioned as there are some candidates in the other provinces. None are anywhere near O'Driscoll's level, but he does, at least, have options. Leinster are thinner on the ground when it comes to the hallowed No 13 shirt.

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