Sport Rugby

Wednesday 22 January 2020

O'Connor's robust Blues show there's life beyond lost legends

David Kelly

David Kelly

If the Heineken Cup leaves us with nothing else in its swansong season, it will be how often its participants have a recurring, uncanny knack of tossing assumptions to the four winds.

Leinster, of course, had the most egregious of perceptions to cast off in the middle of the last decade, ploughing a fallow furrow before assuming the mantle of multiple champions.

Their credibility and character was often questioned; only when they cast aside pusillanimity for pugnacity could Leinster ascend to greatness.

This week, based upon early-season evidence and an overhaul within the organisation, there have been utterly valid reassessments of the Leinster project.

Despite only losing to one team in the Heineken Cup in the last three years – to an awesome Clermont – despite the three stars paraded upon their breasts, manifold assumptions have once more been tossed in their direction.

RUDDERLESS

That they were fallible under the direction of a new coach with limited first-team experience, one who could hardly compare to Joe Schmidt. That they were unable to fill the yawning gap at out-half bequeathed by the departure of Jonny Sexton.

That they were rudderless with so many injured, departed or retired – Sexton, Nacewa, Cullen, Jennings and O'Driscoll were losses that could not but bleed the life from this institution.

That they would be unable to cope with the luckless culling of Richardt Strauss' talent, or the enforced departure of Mike Ross from their front-row.

All those perceptions and assumptions can be crumpled up and deposited in the trash where, in all probability, they will settle snugly alongside the Ospreys' delusional aspirations in Europe for yet another year.

Matt O'Connor could claim vindication for a half-back selection that may have ruffled some supporters' feathers; that is not his style.

For conviction trumps vindication every time.

"It's not about being vindicated," he said. "It's about getting the result for the group. We sat down on Monday and thought that Jimmy might manage it better than Ian Madigan at this point.

"Now, that might change next week but he has played very well. I have said it all along: he is a good pro. He is in a good side a very good player."

Indeed, it is likely that the Gopperth-Boss pairing will be retained; Madigan, who was left on the bench for the entire 80 minutes, will be introduced this Saturday against the French champions.

Madigan seemed to be a fall guy for defeat in Munster; he was not. The whole team absorbed themselves in introspective mode all week. They did not like what they saw.

"The effort was pleasing," said O'Connor. "There are things that we are trying to put together on the training paddock. We have a pretty tight window with new players and new coaches and they are working very hard. We had some robust conversations earlier in the week post-Munster. They were the first to stick their hands up and say that wasn't good enough, that wasn't the Leinster standard, and they fixed it."

This may be a new-look Leinster side, one brimming with new characters and new voices trying to supplant echoes of the departed, one attempting to absorb tweaks in the hugely successful Schmidt masterplan.

But the old values remain.

On a weekend where the Heineken Cup revealed a stoutness of character in some, and a deficiency in others, Leinster's indomitability and durability emerged like a beacon from the South Wales deluge.

With Castres arriving next weekend as fellow table-toppers – though one senses Leinster would be much happier with their 4-0 match points total – O'Connor's side could be primed to make a big splash in Pool One.

Heineken Cups can't be won on weekend one; however, by losing at home with no match points, as Ospreys have done, it can be lost.

"We will look at each game in its own individual context," said O'Connor, who led only the second side in 22 attempts to win a European game here.

"It is about whether our attitude and our performance is good enough to get the result on the night. What we will get out of being at home puts us in a good place. Every game is its own beast and we have to try and get as many of those results as we can."

Anticipating French folly would be risky; after their bruising win at home, Castres' ears will still be pricked this early in the qualification campaign.

"They say if you lose any game at home in the Heineken Cup it is effectively curtains, so we know we have to be really focused," admits Sean Cronin.

"They managed to beat Northampton, didn't they, so I am sure they will come to the RDS full of confidence.

"You hear talk of French teams away from home. All French teams are unpredictable at times. They have it all to play for so that won't be in our mindset at all. We have to go out and do our job and get the win and then that will be the first block of the Heineken over."

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