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Tony Ward: High-profile Matt O'Connor sacking moves rugby ever closer to soccer


Matt O'Connor

Matt O'Connor


Matt O'Connor

Is Matt O'Connor's exit fair? No, probably not. But this is the new age of professional rugby, and get used to it because it is going to get even more cut-throat from now on in the race to put bums on seats.

Despite all that has been said and written about O'Connor and his style of coaching, this decision - made by chief executive Mick Dawson and the Leinster Professional Games Board comprising Ben Underwood, Frank Sowman, Paul Dean, Ray Ryan, Des Lamont, Guy Easterby, Phil Orr and Tony O'Beirne - has still caught most rugby people by surprise, not least the Leinster players.

Often, particularly in soccer, we hear of managers 'losing the dressing-room' as in the confidence of the players. That did not apply here.

Whoever took over from Joe Schmidt was always going to inherit a poisoned chalice. Only now is O'Connor fully appreciating just how poisoned that chalice was.

Schmidt's brand of winning rugby had more than a touch of style about it. It was player-driven, in that it always played to players' strengths. That is, for me, what makes Schmidt a coach apart - the ability to win any which way.


Back-to-back Six Nations successes involving the same core group but with players that little bit older and wiser led to a much-changed style this season, but the end result was the same: winning rugby.

That is the bottom line. And that's why I believe this decision had nothing to do with optics and everything to do with results - which were not good enough in this campaign.

It is worth noting, though, that Leinster's Heineken Cup pool victory at Franklin's Garden's in December 2013, and the Pro12 win over Ulster 12 months ago were on a par with, if not better than, any of the performances under Schmidt.

His record and imprint on back play at Leicester Tigers suggested that he was a good appointment prior to his appointment for Leinster.

So where then did it go so badly wrong? O'Connor was clearly a victim of circumstance. While he inherited a hugely talented group of players (certainly behind the scrum), it was a group in wind-down mode.

Minus Johnny Sexton and with the Gordon D'Arcy/Brian O'Driscoll partnership coming to an end, the only way was down. And so it proved.

Nevertheless, it was hard to see the axe coming.

On the other hand, it is difficult to see how O'Connor could possibly have improved results or indeed playing style between now and late October, with the likelihood of as many as 20 Leinster players being involved with Ireland at the World Cup.

Clearly, fan power had a key part to play in this decision. This potentially sets a very dangerous precedent for Leinster and Irish rugby going forward.

O'Connor, though, could have helped himself by being a little more media-savvy too.

Gary Ella (the man responsible for switching D'Arcy from full-back/wing to inside-centre) experienced a similar fate just one year into his contract in 2004, so it is a course of action not without precedent in Leinster.

The appointment of Leo Cullen alongside Richie Murphy stacks up in the short term but, in surrendering to the masses, the head coaching position looks a little more dangerous now.

Another way in which O'Connor did himself no favours was in following his heart rather than his head when criticising the player welfare policy and, by extension, his employers (the IRFU) as well as the performance director (David Nucifora) and head coach (Schmidt).

And as I pointed out forcibly at the time, O'Connor was well able to practise a similar selective policy when denying Leinster clubs fringe players for Ulster Bank League action, even when they were surplus to the province's needs.

It made for a Joe v Matt spat and there was only going to be one winner.

So who is his likely successor? Apparently, former Wallaby coaches Ewen McKenzie and Robbie Deans (in charge of the Barbarians against Schmidt's Ireland in Limerick next week) are among the front-runners.

I would love to see Conor O'Shea take up that mantle but he has unfinished business with Harlequins.

Bernard Jackman, currently doing fine work with Grenoble in the Top 14, is another worthy of consideration.

So too Jono Gibbes, a real unsung hero of the Schmidt era, who is assistant coach at Clermont Auvergne

Two others who I suspect will not be in the frame but have impressed me greatly over the years are Dean Ryan, currently at Worcester and on the verge of a return to the Aviva Premiership, and Nick Mallett, the former South Africa and Italy coach.

One final point. Allowing for the fact it is a shock decision, the timing is right in terms of allowing the new head man enough time and space (assuming a speedy appointment) to prepare in the most practical way for the new season and all the World Cup entails.

Somehow, I suspect Leinster have been working away in the background assembling a likely list of successors and may not be far from an imminent appointment.

Either way, rugby and professional football moved that bit closer on the back of this high-profile sacking. Now there's a thought.

Irish Independent

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