Tuesday 16 January 2018

Past achievements offer little protection when futures are in balance

Matt O'Connor
Matt O'Connor
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Immunity and the job of a head coach are generally mutually exclusive. A contract definitely doesn't make you immune from the sack - ask Matt O'Connor.

And having a good relationship with players certainly doesn't make you immune from the sack. You know the drill by now - ask Matt etc.

When O'Connor posed for photos on the day of his first official press conference in August 2013, the new Leinster boss was asked to smile.

With his dry sense of humour, he said under his breath: "Make sure you get a photo of it. . . you won't see it again." Mildly prophetic.

His time in charge emitted varying forms of frustration long before this season flatlined.

If players aren't playing to their potential and there is a constant recurrence of systems failures in a demanding culture, then immunity when it comes to the job of the head coach isn't just a flexible concept. It's non-existent.


What about immunity and the job of a head coach who helped create a winning culture as a player? A head coach who understands and is developing the style of rugby fans expect because he helped build that tradition?

Do Anthony Foley's achievements as a player and assistant coach help protect his current job any more than someone who had no previous ties to a club, like O'Connor at Leinster?

Munster technical advisor Mick O'Driscoll hadn't a clue what I was on about when I asked him earlier this week if the day held any significance for him.

It just happened to be May 20. Ring a bell? Rewind nine years to the same date in 2006 and Munster's first Heineken Cup final win.

"I can't believe it was nine years ago," O'Driscoll volleyed in response.

His initial non-recall of the date quickly obliterated any notion I had that the nine-year anniversary might have merited a mention-in-passing status in the Munster office that day.

But what happened nine years ago wasn't just historic. It's history to these people. There are five players from the '06 Heineken Cup-winning squad still with the province.

Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan on the players rota, and Anthony Foley, Jerry Flannery and O'Driscoll on the coaching team.

This season has been a mix of push and pull. There was the email fiasco at the start of the campaign and the failure to qualify for the quarter-finals of the European Champions Cup.

But they have pulled it around. And they are now two wins away from winning a title in Foley's first season as head coach.

We know the values Foley traded on in the past as a player. What about as a head coach?

"Axel is one of the hardest working coaches I've ever come across," O'Driscoll said. "You could get emails from him as late as midnight and as early as 6.0 or 7.0 in the morning. It's relentless. But he has so many things he has to think about."

And Flannery as scrum coach? We try to put the square peg of him looking calm and controlled during matches as an assistant coach into the round hole of his brilliant controlled aggression as a player.

"He is very diligent, very intense. He can be quite critical of himself at times - we're all a bit like that," O'Driscoll explained.

He wasn't buying into any notion that this indigenous coaching team with a successful playing past increases or decreases the pressure on them.

Because like their playing days, the external pressure "would be one eighth of the pressure that we put on ourselves".

Today's Pro12 semi-final against Ospreys is important in itself, and there is also the incentive of making sure Munster get as good a seeding as possible for next season's Champions Cup.

You see in plenty of other aspects, the past always has a bearing on the future.

Leinster's previous success under Michael Cheika and Schmidt probably added to O'Connor's undoing.

Not just because the standard was set and there was no room for negotiation on this. But because the future direction looked far from enticing with him in charge.


O'Connor wasn't the right fit for Leinster. But unlike some other people, I was always impressed by the way he handled himself when his future was being questioned.He never gave the dagger eyes and I never saw him go over the top in high-pressure situations in public like other coaches - Cheika, for example.

The 'right now' culture doesn't make space for accoutrements like time. What you did in the past is almost becoming frighteningly irrelevant unless you're in the Schmidt stratosphere.

The cliche that you're only as good as your last game is obsolete. You're now only as good as your next game. And immunity is powerless to cover whatever may happen in the future.

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