Leinster’s New Man

Matt O’Connor will be the next Leinster head coach.  He’s already met the players apparently, and the decision will be announced in the next few days.  It’s a swift turnaround from Leinster Rugby, who must have foreseen how things have since transpired with Joe Schmidt from the moment Louis Picamoles scored the equalising try in Lansdowner, or perhaps from the moment BNZ rolled out that 60-burger in June.

But who is this new coach and will he be any good?  Confession time: we don’t really know anything about him first hand.  So, as always, we welcome input from those who do.

Here’s what we do know.  He’s been Richard Cockerill’s right hand man at Leicester since 2008, where his job title was ‘Head Coach’, but he has effectively been their No.2  and before that he worked with the Brumbies, whose attacking style (think George Gregan and Stephen Larkham) apparently greatly informs his rugby philosophy.

Michael Dawson has made two winning appointments in a row by targeting young, ambitious coaches who have served an apprenticeship as a No.2 or performed well with a smaller club.  This appointment continues the theme.  With both Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt, Dawson got exactly what the doctor ordered, can he do so for a third time on the spin?  Cheika was brought in to stiffen the team up, and Schmidt to bring back some of the traditional flair that had been sacrificed in the process.  This time around, the watchword is ‘continuity’.  Schmidt’s Leinster ain’t broken, and O’Connor will be tasked with keeping the wheels turning smoothly, while dealing with some bumps in the road that lie ahead (more of this later).  Like Schmidt, he’s a technical coach with clear ideas on how the game should be played, and favours a running game with ball-in-hand.

Without being close enough to the goings on at Leicester, it’s hard to know just how much to attribute of what goes on there to him, but the augurs are reasonably good.  Leicester have never been a club readily associated with free-flowing rugby, but they do play a decent brand of footie.  They routinely top the try-count in the Premiership, usually by a large margin and were involved in the best game of Heineken Cup rugby of the season, a thrilling 15-15 draw with Ospreys played at breakneck pace for 80 minutes.  Ben Youngs is their key player and the backline works off his running angles and ability to bring those around him into play.  Yes, Manu Tuilagi is an important weapon for them and, no, Leinster don’t have any backs of his ilk, but not everyone in the Leicester backline is an Island-built monster.  Matt Tait is their fullback and former Leinsterman Niall Morris is holding down a starting berth on the wing.  All that said, they did play Toulouse with Thomas “the Tank Engine” Waldrom at openside this season, prompting us to tweet that if they won it would disprove all we thought we knew about the game.

Ok, so it’s another attack-minded coach who seems to have the ability to get his team scoring tries.  Sounds good.  But what sort of challenge awaits O’Connor?  For starters, Joe Schmidt is a tough act to follow.  Matching Schmidt’s achievements seems almost impossible but if O’Connor can at least match the class with which Schmidt conducts himself, that will be half the battle.  Leicester and Cockerill in particular have a reputation for whinging and that won’t endear him to Leinster fans.  In order to keep Leinster competitive at the sharp end of the Heineken Cup and Pro12, he’ll have to deal with a number of looming obstacles.  Three stand out as the most obvious.

  1. No Jonny Sexton next season.  Schmidt immediately identified Sexton as the key player in the Leinster team, and under his tutelage the fly-half has graduated from a fleetingly brilliant but occasionally jittery fly-half to a consummate matchwinner and Lions walk-in.  O’Connor will be seeking to do the same with Ian Madigan.  The process has already started, to the extent that Madigan was apparently strongly considered for selection in Gatland’s party this week.  The talent is all there and if indeed O’Connor is a Brumbies man through and through, he may well perfectlysuit Madigan, who has always looked like an Aussie five-eighth born in the wrong hemisphere.  O’Connor must build Leinster’s gameplan around the Blackrock kid’s unique attacking instincts.
  2. Tighthead prop. A province with a tighthead problem?  Come on in, Munster and Ulster will say, the water is fine.  Mike Ross won’t be able to go on forever and at 33, looks a shade over the hill, with this season’s performances a notch down on the previous two.  Michael Bent is not the answer, and it must be frustrating to see Jamie Hagan finally hitting his straps just as he is making for the exit.  There do appear to be prospects in Tadgh Furlong and Martin Moore, but producing props is a slow process; how long before they are ready to step up to regular Pro12 commitments, let alone Heineken Cup?  No obvious solution exists.
  3. Centres.  It seems increasingly likely Brian O’Driscoll will play on for another season.  Gordon D’arcy’s form for Leinster has been mostly excellent this season, and he seems to be very much on Madigan’s wavelength when they have played together.  The two old lags have at least one season left in them, but after that, who knows?  Fergus McFadden is the likely replacement for D’arcy, but he is a slightly less polished diamond (basically he’s the new Lewis Moody), double-chip-and-gathers notwithstanding.  At outside centre, things are sketchier.  Eoin O’Malley’s season has been a write-off and he needs to prove his fitness and deliver on his undoubted class next season if he is to be considered a suitable long-term replacement. And then there is Luke Fitzgerald.

If O’Connor can get over these hurdles, he will be well on his way.  Second row looks considerably brighter than it did twelve months ago, with Mike McCarthy arriving next season, Leo Cullen rejuvenated and staying on for one more year, Quinn Roux starting to make appearances (which is more than could be said with Ed O’Donoghue and Steven Sykes) and Devin Toner posting a very strong finish to the season.  He inherits a club with strong support, a winning culture and great players.

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35 Comments

  1. Ben Kay was talking about O’Connor last night on Game On on 2FM, it’s been podcasted here if anyone’s interested: http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_gameon.xml

    Seems a sensible appointment and as you said, very similar to Chieka and Schmidt. Lots of challenges for him, but what a gig to land for your first proper Head Coach job. Would like to see McFadden given the 12 jersey next season.

  2. Shelflife68

     /  May 2, 2013

    Seems like a good appointment allright, I have to say though, slightly tongue in cheek but slightly put out at the double standards of the media and supporters regarding EOS role or lack of it here.
    When the Connacht post was vacant there was a clamour in the press to get Eddie the job, now that the Leinster job is open theres not a peep out of any of them yet Connacht were vilified for not interviewing him.
    Im not suggesting for a min that Leinster should have taken EOS, just peeved at the double standards of some of the press in particular

    • Bushmills

       /  May 2, 2013

      I agree to a certain extent re double standards but the processes were somewhat different. That is a function if the different administrations and the approaches they took. It strikes me that Dawson is a very smart operator as his David Humphreys at Ulster (where are the complaints about Mark Anscombe now?).

      The national debate continues to rage about foreign coaches and the lack of opportunities for Irish coaches. How about the opportunity for excellent indigenous talent to run the IRFU???

      • Connachtexile

         /  May 2, 2013

        How were the processes different? EOS applied, we decided we didn’t want to interview him cue media-storm. The only people who ever thought he would be a front runner anyway were George Hook and the entire Independent staff. The only thing EOS had going for him is that he lived in Moylough period. He was also given the courtesy of a preliminary talk by Sears to outline what he had in mind but he never mentioned that in the media. I’ll be intrigued by your answer Bushmills.

        As for indigenous talent it’s slowly being groomed with McFarland in Connacht, Foley in Munster, Dempsey in Leinster and Jackman at Grenoble. Kevin Maggs is at Bristol too.

        • Chogan (@Cillian_Hogan)

           /  May 2, 2013

          When you advertise to the job to the rugby world asking all coaches to apply, it is a very different process to already having compiled at list of prospective coaches and then headhunting the preferred option.
          Eddie applied, he has significant credentials which should warrant an interview. You did’t have to give him the job, just hear him out. Might even learn something from him in the process.

      • Sorry Bushmills but as regards your 3 points: irrelevant; it is and it isn’t; and where have you been the last few weeks?

        “the processes were somewhat different”
        Of course they were, Leinster are Barcelona, Connacht are Ipswich Town, and the IRFU just lifted one of the best (possibly THE best) coach in the game from Leinster. They were hardly going to start telling Leinster to get themselves nice local lad for local footie team, were they?

        “a function if the different administrations and the approaches they took”
        If you mean the Connacht process was too drawn out, then good point well made.

        But in regards to Leinster, nobody’s agent or press lackey bothered to leak confidential information (got to stay on the good side of Ireland’s No. 1 team). That’s surely another major difference here?

        The EOS camp assert that the IRFU told Connacht not to hire him, due to bad feeling over his payoff in 2008. This is more likely than not the case, though it should be remembered he dirtied his bib in Connacht circles years ago when he quit the Connacht job the day before the squad flew out to a training camp in Sweden (he had very valid reasons for doing so, it was more the IRFU’s fault than his, ironically it put Warren Gatland on the fast-track etc. and so on; but that’s another story). In any case: if he was a non-starter for Leinster, then that goes double and change for Connacht.

        “The national debate continues to rage about foreign coaches and the lack of opportunities for Irish coaches.”
        Not the last few weeks it doesn’t. We had every pundit from Thornley to Quinlan pontificating on this subject when Connacht were hiring, but has anyone even suggested an Irish coach for Leinster? (ComedyConorGeorge listed EOS as the 5th most suitable appointee a few weeks ago. I’ll let you decide if that counts).

        Good on Leinster for (1) acting in the best interests of the national team and (2) getting what looks like a really good replacement.

        But you can see how the forelock-tugging from the press irritates Connacht fans who read some fairly vitriolic coverage on the EOS non-issue (esp. in the likes of the Sindo/Indo), right?

        • Connachtexile

           /  May 2, 2013

          ” You did’t have to give him the job, just hear him out. Might even learn something from him in the process.” If you read what I said above Chogan Sears DID hear him out and then decided that Connacht and him weren’t on the same page which is why he didn’t get an interview. And your correct Salmsonconnacht the Sindo/Indo went on a crusade to try and get him the job regardless of what the Connacht fans thought.

    • Laighin Pit Operative

       /  May 2, 2013

      Isn’t that Gerry Thornley’s opinion, rather than your own? Makes sense, though, to a point. Stiddy publically expressed his disappointment at not being interviewed by Munster, but the Munster meeja gave him short shrift. He did the same after Connacht announced their appointment, and there was outrage all over the shop. Smelly Thornley suggested it’s because Connacht are not considered a serious province, but it’s probably got more to do with the pisspoor hacks of his ilk that have various obvious agendas which prevent them from printing certain criticisms of a certain southern faction.

  3. Yossarian

     /  May 2, 2013

    *Martin Moore, not Michael Moore american film maker.

    • I think Muchael would be able to do a job at prop. Thanks, fixed now, although according to some it should be Martin Mooradze.

  4. pete (buachaill on eirne)

     /  May 2, 2013

    It sounds like a good appointment but he does have one hell of a bill to live up to and with what 6 Leinster Lions (before injury call ups) he really is going to have his work cut out for him.

    I don’t think Sexton leaving is going to be that big a deal for him as Madigan is playing excellently and by all accounts Cooperth is very steady I think it is the lose of Nacewa, Carr and Conway. We are missing a fair bit of a depth there and while it still means we could have wings like Fitzgerald and McFadden (not half bad eh) as our first choice, what happens when we rest them?! Who do we play then?!

    I think with this lack of quality depth in the back 3 and our beefing up the front 5 with McCarthy and Roux hopefully being available to play this coming season, I imagine we will see a much more forward orientated Leinster, or at least that’s what I think we should see!

    Best of luck he is going to have his work cut out for him.

    PS: If he can bring Niall Morris over with him he can get a bonus.

    • Jimbob

       /  May 2, 2013

      I heard Leinster were looking to get Morris back recently but Cockerill issued a swift ‘get your hands off.’ He’d be very useful as he can cover back three and has a pretty decent try scoring record in the AP. It’s yet to be seen though if he can step it up against the big guns in Europe.

  5. Len

     /  May 2, 2013

    Lads good summary but yet again I think that your writing off Bent to early. He’s now nearly finished a double season which included being parachuted into a Ireland set up and expected to play barely a week after landing. Think Stan Wright and hold off judgement until next season. The fact that Toner seems to have discovered how to scrum behind the tight head lately will also help though I’d still prefer to see him on the loose head side.

    • We wrote in January he should be given some time to settle in – that still stands, but his development has stalled, to say the least

      • In fairness, the development of Strauss and Wright was along similar lines. Strauss got barely any gametime in his first year, and Wright looked like another Vermaas. Add in the fact that Bent got no preseason and has come in straight from an ITM Cup tournament and the least we can do is give him another year.

        Jamie Hagan’s only ‘coming good’ in the last few months for example. He looked awful in quite a few games last year.

        • Shrek

           /  May 2, 2013

          I think we need to give Bent a full season to judge him properly, but he hasn’t looked too promising so far. One thing that is not helping him adjust is the fact that almost every game he plays, Toner is packing down behind him. Toner’s scrummaging is the worst part of his game, yet he seems to spend a lot of time on the tight head side.

  6. toro toro

     /  May 2, 2013

    It was a swift turnaround alright, but Leinster have been planning for some time to replace Schmidt as smoothly as possible in 2014. So once it became clear that Joe might take the Ireland gig, it was just a matter of ringing around the guys already on the shortlist to see who could take the post now.

    Dingo Deans was apparently also a serious candidate, but couldn’t make a decision until after the Lions tour, which was judged far too late in continuity terms.

    I’m pretty happy about the appointment.

  7. conorphilpott95

     /  May 2, 2013

    He may struggle to fill some holes and he could be in for upheaval. Will be interesting how he manages the changes that need to be made and how the team do with him. Informative piece lads

  8. Ben

     /  May 2, 2013

    “Leicester and Cockerill in particular have a reputation for whinging and that won’t endear him to Leinster fans.”

    Really? They didn’t seem to mind Cheika’s not infrequent rants nor even Joe’s pops at referees. 🙂

    To be fair a provincial coach has to be seen to stand up for his team and their supporters but one man’s ‘straight talking’ is another’s ‘whinge’

    On the appointment itself we will just have to bide our time but I do hope fans and media alike recall how many of them were calling for Joe’s head within weeks of his first few games. Patience…..

    • I don’t think there were many fans calling for Joe’s Head (cracking track back from when Kings of Leon were good). Not too many media men either. Just one I seem to recall, but he was saying it so loudly it might have sounded like more than one person…

      • Good point on Cheika, but in fairness to WoC, Cockerill’s a special case. I’ve seen him interviewed on ESPN after matches a few times this year, and even when they win it’s car-crash stuff.

  9. Yossarian

     /  May 2, 2013

    off topic but see sky sports is getting the rights to the Rabo 2014?that will be bad for the growing popularity of rugby in Ireland.30 games a year televised compared to the abundance we have grown used to. Hopefully there will be secondary rights to games Sky don’t cover.

    • The Rabo are expecting 125 of 135 matches to be covered from 2014/15; i.e. not an exclusive deal. Sky aren’t aiming at terrestrial TV stations, this is to get at BT (would the casual Sports fan rather watch Leinster vs Munster or Northampton vs Exeter at 3pm of a Saturday?). RunningRugby has a good rundown if you have a registration.

    • Xyz

       /  May 2, 2013

      Don’t think Sky have exclusive coverage so shouldn’t impact the availability to the casual fan. But more importantly for the likes of us here, Sky cover rugby well unlike the rubbish efforts this exile puts up with when trying to watch Rabo games in England (and apparently it is no better in Ireland). As far as I’m concerned this is great for the Rabo.

      • ORiordan

         /  May 2, 2013

        The Sky-tastic treatment can grate a bit…I can’t wait for: BOOM… here it is… BOOM…. what you’ve been waiting for….BOOM…. Connacht….BOOM…. against Zebre…cue montage…. However Sky’s presentation is nothing but slick and will be a kick up the arse for the regional broadcasters’ coverage. Having a genuine national broadcaster will be a plus point to attract higher quality league and team sponsorship as well.

        Sky’s coverage may not be exclusive initially, but I would expect them to up their offer to get exclusivity when the regional broadcaster TV deals come up for renewal.

    • Thirty a year is weak. As you say, hopefully other broadcasters can fight ovr the remaining crumbs on the table.

      Now that Murdoch is broadcasting the league, will Stephen Jones have to declare his unabiding love for all things Rabo Pro12?

  10. Not Michael Bent

     /  May 3, 2013

    Just to pick up on salmsonconnacht’s comment- it’s definitely still an ongoing negotiation with the other broadcasters.

    Currently, no English broadcasters carrying any of the big ones, and since Setanta UK stopped operating, there’s nobody to show them there (at least legally), but the reality of this is that they just want a few highlight games to fill out their packages, and along the way, get a few ex-pats to stick with Sky.

    Most likely, there will be no major impact whatsoever in terms of being able to view games, just you might have to watch a couple of them on Sky, as opposed to as Gaeilge.

  11. zdm

     /  May 3, 2013

    It’s interesting to see the differing view points on Leinster’s needs regarding player personnel – I think everyone will acknowledge that they face a major transition at 10 but there is cause for optimism in Madigan’s response to opportunity.

    That said, they face a potential headache at the 9/10 axis. While I am loathe to criticise a coaching set-up that has delivered half a decade of European finals, I think they have fallen asleep somewhat with regards to their half back pairing. No-one can blame them really for Sexton leaving but Leinster’s dependance on him and also their relative complaceny that the person in the 9 jersey doesn’t matter when you have a 10 that good could come back to haunt them – they are now face with an “emergency” bedding in of a new fly half with two ageing scrum halves who are good but not spectacular and who have not had to boss a game for a while. Madigan is a great front foot player who will crush the opposition when on form but can he turn a 10 point deficit in to a 5 point lead?
    It shouldn’t be solely his responsibility but teams depend on their half backs to dictate the pace and I don’t see where Leinster can inject tempo in to a rainy night at the Sportsground with their current crop of half backs.

    I’d be interested in the thoughts of those with more of a knowledge of the young bucks at Leinster to see if there is anyone on the fringes who could step up next seaons, particularly at 9.

    • toro toro

       /  May 3, 2013

      There’s John Cooney, who’s played a fair bit this season and looked excellent, with absolute lightning distribution, and schoolie superstar Luke McGrath a little behind him, who’s a fantastic prospect, was neck-and-neck or slightly ahead of Marmion for most of their Irish Schools tenure. We’ll be fine at nine.

      • Yossarian

         /  May 3, 2013

        Leinster were never likely be allowed sign a 9 with Reddan/Boss there already and McGrath/Cooney coming through. As a small rugby nation we will always have a deficit of top class players in key positions.(years of stringer/ROG often due to a lack of alternative when they had a dip in form)at tight head Hayes was the only option for years. Leinster waited years to have a decent homegrown 10 in Sexton after going through Contepomi/Spooner/Holwell/eddie hekenui etc. the likelihood of a top 9 at the same time would be fortuitous. I think the academy does its best to address the shortfall in positions but if the talent isn’t there its not there.
        McGrath seems to be the great hope since he was about 17!based on his U20 performances though he looks like a quality operator.

        • thoughtless

           /  May 5, 2013

          McGrath was really excellent on Friday, looked a very classy player. Well-weighted box kicks, a lovely snipe and offload to set up a try, and decent distribution (if not quite as quick as Cooney). He was brilliant in the first game of the u20s 6 Nations too, and captained the side. He’s on his way to living up to the schoolboy hype, although I remember Brian O’Riordan looking similarly precocious at one point, so best to live in hope rather than expectation.

  12. Seiko

     /  May 4, 2013

    Talking about recruitment processes! Are Leinster fans a bit worried about Leo & BOD interviewing him for the job? Seem to remember a lot of outrage about POC & ROG meeting Penney (and Munster had to come out and say they just met him but were not involved in the decision making). Do Leinster fans think the new coach might be compromised by this happening? Would Jennings & Leo have known him from Leicester or had they left by the time he arrived?

    Its going to be difficult for O’Connor losing so many key players like Nacewa & Sexton. Best of luck to him anyway.

  13. Now its confirmed. In Dawson we trust.

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