Raw materials in place for O'Connor to build legacy
But big-name exits mean new Leinster boss must be given time to settle in, writes Jim Glennon
Change is very much in the air at Leinster, and yesterday's magnificent league victory at the RDS brought the curtain down on the most successful era in the province's 139-year history.
The departure of Joe Schmidt after three uniquely successful seasons represents the most fundamental of the changes. While other exits may have caused more surprise or disappointment, the promotion of the head coach to the national job is the most far-reaching. He discharged his brief to such effect that not only has he maintained Leinster's place among the top European clubs, he has also established them as the most consistently successful outfit in the northern hemisphere.
In a continuation of what has now become a theme among the Irish provinces, the replacement would not have been instantly recognisable to most but, in what looks another shrewd appointment, Matt O'Connor appears particularly well-suited to continue the work of Schmidt and Michael Cheika before him. His successful tenure at Leicester under director of rugby Richard Cockerill has seen the quality of the club's back play improve enormously. Long famed for their uncompromisingly aggressive forward play, Leicester have been at the top of the English try-scoring charts in each of the last three seasons and, like Leinster, were crowned league champions yesterday.
Jonny Sexton's move to Racing Metro is undoubtedly the biggest contra to the arrival of O'Connor. Add to this the retirement of Isa Nacewa, the loss of Andrew Conway to Munster and the return of Fionn Carr to Connacht, and the stock of backline options becomes relatively diluted.
The emergence of Ian Madigan will negate, to some extent at least, the departure of Sexton, but the loss of the three back-three options will be a blow. Nacewa brought a physical and mental toughness to the table, particularly valuable in the absence of the international players during the Six Nations.
Conway's departure for Munster came as something of a surprise. Since arriving on the scene on leaving school, his opportunities have been few and far between and it's ironic and frustrating that he's managed only in recent weeks to avail of a sustained run of opportunities in major games. He can be expected to make a big impact in Thomond.
Opportunities abound now for Leinster's younger generation of backs, particularly as early season appearances by O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney will be a rarity in the aftermath of the Lions tour. The likes of Dave Kearney, Eoin O'Malley, Brendan Macken and, hopefully, the returning Luke Fitzgerald will treasure any chance to impress the new boss.
Add to the mix the recently-recruited South African international Zane Kirchner, who has a difficult act to follow in Nacewa, and the raw material is definitely there for the new coach to experiment with his own combinations.
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I'm not so sure that the same can be said for the front-row, however, with the loss of tighthead Jamie Hagan. Having returned to his native province two years ago from Connacht, the Balbriggan man struggled to establish himself. Like Conway, however, his recent performances have been encouraging, probably the best of his time with Leinster, firmly establishing him as first-choice back-up to Mike Ross. The 26-year old will undoubtedly develop further as a result of regular Premiership starts at London Irish but Leinster may have erred in allowing him slip away. Michael Bent, the current alternative, is simply not made of the required stuff.
On the loosehead side, Heinke van der Merwe is off to Paris too, but in Jack McGrath Leinster have a strong and progressive alternative who improves with every outing and looks at this stage like an excellent long-term back-up for Cian Healy.
The scrum, however, appears to be a potential vulnerability, and valid questions arise around a personnel strategy which goes to some lengths to ensure the arrival of the likes of Bent, while facilitating the departures of indigenous home-grown native talents like Hagan, into whom so much time has been invested.
The second-row is an essential component of the scrum effort, and it's no coincidence that Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn were part of Heineken Cup final victories. The unlucky Quinn Roux is one I'm looking forward to seeing a lot more next season; Leo Cullen is in the autumn of a wonderful Leinster career and circumstances dictate that he be sparingly used. As a consequence, Roux and Devin Toner will become essential cogs in the machine.
Whoever took over from Schmidt was always going to have his work cut out but with his own distinguished track record and the raw materials available to him, O'Connor can be expected to build on the legacies of his immediate predecessors. Having said that, he's entitled to a settling-in period too and caution should be a keynote in any hasty judgments – if some of Schmidt's early critics had been heeded, the most successful Leinster coach of all time would have been looking for another job after only four games.