Matt O’Connor’s Big Season

Earlier this week, we asked a whole pile of questions about Munster’s season. Continuing the theme, we take a look at Leinster today.

Last season was as curious a campaign as the province have ever had. You could count the really good performances on one hand and they flunked out of their biggest game of the season having barely fired a shot, and they even suffered a rare defeat to Munster (!) but they ended up winning the Pro12, which counts for a lot.
What are we to expect this campaign? We don’t really know.

As with Munster, they haven’t started well.  Leinster almost pulled a win out of the bag against Glasgow, but it would have been a richly undeserved one.  Glasgow away is a loseable match, and Leinster have a habit of losing their first game of the season, but as performances go it was straight out of last year’s manual.  Ok, here goes.

Is Matt O’Connor a good head coach? We don’t really know. Following Joe Schmidt was always going to be hard, but O’Connor had a mixed bag as head coach last year. Say what you like about Rob Penney, but at least Munster played to a discernible pattern last year, even if it wasn’t always successful. Under Matt O’Connor, it became difficult to work out what Leinster were trying to do. Defensively, they seemed pretty well organised; was he building a solid defensive platform, and this year will we see him developing a more cohesive style in attack? Or is this simply his preferred way of playing? Most coaches get a 12-month bedding in period and O’Connor has had his. We’re about to find out if he is any good or not.

Who’s going to play 13? Not a clue! Fergus McFadden? Luke Fitzgerald? Zane Kirchner? Gordon D’arcy? Ben Te’o? Some or all of the above? Probably the latter. It seems like Te’o has been earmarked for the role but he doesn’t get here for a while and could have an extended settling-in period. We were initially underwhelmed by his signing, but Leinster have a small backline and some brutishness may not be such a bad option to have.  There’ve been murmurings of Gordon D’arcy trying out for the role, given that he’s more of an outside centre in disguise than a traditional 12, but can he make up for a lack of pace? Fergus McFadden is quick, but does he have the skills? His head down charges are more effective on the wing or at 12. Then there’s Luke Fitzgerald. Who the heck knows what to expect there. Can he finally, finally put his injuries behind him? Does he want to play 13? Is his passing good enough? So many questions! Now, that it’s finally here, Life After BOD looks every bit as hard as we always knew it would be.

Who’s going to play 10? Not sure. Ian Madigan’s fluctuating fortunes became the most discussed topic below the line last year. Some blamed O’Connor for his lack of form, others said he was never any use in the first place; everyone had an opinion. Much like with Simon Zebo, the world’s a happier place when Madigan is on the pitch, and it almost feels like an embracing of one’s limitations when he’s left on the bench. But it’s up to Mad Dog to get himself selected by producing the barnstorming try-scoring, whippy-passing, chip-re-gathering form that almost got him onto the Lions panel – Barnesy was salivating at the prospect, but, alas, Stuart Hogg was better. Improving his loose tactical kicking game would also help. Forget about Jonny Sexton’s return in twelve months; Madigan will be focussed on the here and now. But it’s hard to shake the thought that Gopperth is O’Connor’s preferred 10.

What about 12? Or will Ewan Madeegan find himself press-ganged into a season at 12? Stranger things have happened. Noel Reid suffered what looked like an awful injury in the first minute of the season, which takes away one option. Madigan’s late-season resurgence came at 12 when he came off the bench to perform heroics in both the Pro12 semi-final and final. All the noises from camp are that neither Schmidt nor O’Connor see it as a long-term move for him, but could necessity be the mother of (re-)invention?

Can a new scrum half emerge?  It’s about 100 years since Leinster produced a first rate scrummie.  In the meantime, Eoin Reddan continues to operate at a high level, but Isaac Boss may have crested the hill.  Luke McGrath has plenty of attributes of a good scrum half – all of them in fact, except for a crisp passing game – and seems to be improving.  Can this be a breakthrough year?

Elsewhere things are more settled. There don’t look to be too many issues in the pack, in terms of personnel at least, but it wold be nice to see Leinster’s clearout return to the standards set in the Schmidt era when no ruck was safe from Jamie Heaslip or Nathan Hines smashing players with both accuracy and near-feral appetite for destruction. The lineout will be reasonable, with Cronin’s throwing improved, and the scrum should continue to be solid rather than destructive.  Marty Moore might edge ahead of Mike Ross in the front row, or he might not, and Richardt Strauss will be out to try and get the shirt back off Sean Cronin – but he has a hard task in doing so, because Cronin was outstanding last year. Hopefully, Kevin McLaughlin has had time to recharge the batteries after a season in which he seemed to be playing through injuries. He needs to rediscover his mojo with Rhys Ruddock improving at a steady rate. The annual hand-wringing over the Leinster second-row can be put off for twelve months, as Kane Douglas looks a good signing and Devin Toner has established himself as a test-level rugby player. Mike McCarthy’s presence means there’s even a bit of depth there.

By far the best and most important difference to last year is the return of Sean O’Brien. The Tullow flanker’s combination of explosive ball-carrying and breakdown menace is a game-changer for any coach and should result in every facet of Leinster’s play being that bit better. If the essence of rugby is winning quality ball and breaking the gainline, then Sean O’Brien is that essence distilled into one super-human wrecking ball.

O’Connor and Leinster’s problem is now sky-high expectations – last year they actually did better than the year before, despite losing their most important player to Le Cafe et Le Croissant and their second most important to injury for much of the season. They won the Pro12 in both years, yet won the regular season piece only in 2014 and were far better in the final in 2014 (admittedly with SOB back). In 2013, they went out at the pool stage of the HEC (RIP) but in 2014 they won their pool and lost to the best team in Europe (and eventual champions), arrogant moneybags nouveau riche dilletantes Toulon. Sure, in both years they had limp home defeats in the double header, but in 2013/14 they won the away game with their most complete performance of the season – and don’t forget last year was the year the Saints really proved their metal whereas Clermont are a bunch of chokers.

Despite this improvement in results, there was a quite a bit of grumbling about style of play – which is fine, anything post-Schmidt will be a come-down. But ultimately, this was a pretty successful year for Leinster. And it’s set the bar high for this season – anything less than a third successive Pro12 trophy (does it have a name? Le Bouclier de Brennans?) will be seen as a step back, and given the relatively benign Champions Cup, or whatever it’s called, draw, a home QF should be achievable, which means a semi-final is needed to constitute a successful year. Leinster have now won a trophy for four years in a row, a Tigers-esque run of form. If they finish the year potless, and “only” get to the Champions Cup quarter-finals, and without a more watchable brand of rugby, the knives might be out for O’Connor.

That seems tough, but these are the standards Leinster have set for themselves. As BOD might say to Bakkies Botha – bring it on.

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44 Comments

  1. Good to see a fairly balanced look at Leinster’s current predicament. The baying for MOC’s blood over the last 12 months from some quarters has been nonsensical at times.

    Boss looks to be over the hill which is a big worry. Hopefully Reddan can play 60-70% of our bigger games, and McGrath can pick up more gametime too (though I don’t think he’s up to the level that he could start a HEC game yet).

    I have absolutely no issues with Leinster playing a power based game (that’s essentially what we did at times with Schmidt, many seem to forget) and I think that might actually suit, given the sheer physicality of our pack, and now Teo as another big carrier hopefully.

    • Aaaand pretty much right on cue, the usual suspects come out with the MOC bashing/playing like Leicester/someone please think of Madigan.
      Like clockwork.

      • VNVObit

         /  September 10, 2014

        Schmidt did rely on power but mixed it with an excellent passing game and it’s that element that seemed to go backwards last year. Whether that’s the result of how MO’C focussed training /gameplan or the players forgetting that element of the game I don’t know (the truth is probably a mixture of the two) but I do know I’d like to see it get back to being an important part of Leinster’s armoury.

  2. That’s Luke McGrath at 9 unless you are suggesting we merge him with Marty Moore into the beastiest scrum hlaf the world has ever known!

    • I’ve some sort of weird issue with Luke McGrath’s name. That’s the second time we’ve made that same mistake on the blog. Very strange. Thanks anyway, and fixed now!

  3. MOC is turning Leinster into a version of Leicester, depending on power rugby and superior athletes to get results with very little skill and subtly to their attacking play. This is not the best use of resources when it comes to the players available to Leinster in the backline which is more skill than size yet he continues down that path.

    When bang average players like Darragh Fanning are favourites of the coach you are left wondering. Not to mention his continued playing of Boss despite his awful form or the predictability of his attacking gameplan.

    • Although I am no fan of MOC and agree with you re: Leicster how good is the Leinster backline anymore? Who from the Leinster backs would make it on a first choice Ulster team? Rob for Payne? Darcy for Olding? Luke if he could stay injury free for 3 games in a row. I think the lads missed the likely starter at 13 for the majority of Leinster games this season in this article; Macken. I know he is young but he really isn’t at the level expected particularly in defence. Maybe MOC is (in his own mind) playing the hand he has.

      • I can’t see Macken being more than a squad player unil he learns to pass the ball.

        • Yossarian

           /  September 10, 2014

          he has started the season with the 13 jersey but doesn’t have an appetite for tackling.A worrying trait in a pro player. big guy who can beat a man but his passing as noted is sub standard. a bright schools prospect who has failed to kick on.

      • MOC is setting Leinster up to not lose games rather to win them, it s overly pragmatic and negative and isn’t what Leinster rugby is about.
        Results covered up some awful backline attacking performances last season and there is no guarantee that results will remain the same or that performances will improve.
        The talent is there but it’s not being maximized by MOC’s system currently as there seems to be a lot of fitting players to the system, rather than designing a system that suits our players’ strengths.

        • Given Leinster’s strengths are overwhelmingly in the pack, what system should he be using?

          • You can still mix in a patterned attack with a defensive/set piece forwards game. Look at Toulon last year they manage a nice mix of style and strangulation. It wasn’t like it was a strategic call last season,our attack was poorly organised and executed for all bar a handful of games. Some of this was undoubedly due to Johnny being missing and BOD being on his last legs but MOC has to take some blame. Leinster will not out muscle their way to a RCC (ugh even typing that) trophy past the top French sides.

          • No problem with him relying on the pack to win us games, we have the best pack on paper in the league.
            Major problem with how he wants to use our backs and his preference for bigger less skilled players at those positions(Darragh Fanning, Ben Teo?).
            We don’t play heads up rugby under MOC, we play to a pattern and system that does not take advantage of the talent, size and skill set of our backs.
            His insistence with Boss is another worry as he is clearly playing poorly and slows down our attacking game. Is there a more uninspiring leinster 9,10,11 than Boss, Gopperth, Fanning?

  4. OCallaghan, Barry

     /  September 10, 2014

    Can’t comment – blog doesn’t recognise my email as valid – the apostrophe?

  5. ArtVandelay

     /  September 10, 2014

    Luke Moore?

  6. Phil Tran

     /  September 10, 2014

    It’s hard to see Leinster not progressing out of their pool as winners in the ERCC (erk?), which will only increase expectations.

    The backline does seem to be a bit of an issue for them, and I can’t really see it being settled before Christmas, which is a worry in terms of continuity. I doubt Madigan will move out just yet, as he’s one of Leinster’s two main 10s, and I can imagine neither Nucifora nor MOC are terribly keen on playing him week in, week out at 12. Can’t Leinster just put D’Arcy at 13 and his beard at 12?

    On a side note on the trophy, it *does* kind of look like a big pint, doesn’t it?

  7. If coaching at this level has more to do with man-management than the imparting of skills or tactics, then last season and the start of this one leaves me dissatisfied with MO’C. Since he took over he has reduced Ireland’s second best outhalf, who individually had contributed probably the most to our Rabo/Amlin-double and was returning from a successful Ireland tour to North America, to a bench warmer. I have nothing against Jimmy Gopperth. He’s a fine player without whom we wouldn’t have won away at Ospreys – a match-saving tackle – and Castres – two tries. I would however have thought MO’C would have backed Madigan to push on and used Gopperth as his number two then the other way around. All this stuff about Madigan’s match control failings is a joke at this stage. How will he ever improve and fulfill his potential, if he’s never played in the pressure games? RO’G wasn’t the finished article from the get go. He had to blow some big matches before he actually learned how to handle the clutch. Along with Luke McGrath Leinster have potentially the most exciting half-back pairing in the Pro 12. The sooner we see them starting together the better. Either that or Girvan Dempsey should be made head coach.

    • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

       /  September 10, 2014

      I really, really don’t understand this ‘MO’C ruined Madigan’ argument. How does a coach even go about such a task (not to mention why)? Did he walk in day one, walk up to young Mad Dog & give him his best Ivan Drago ‘I must break you!’. As I see it, Gopperth was recruited as back-up at 10. A solid journey-man pro to the young tyro. Problem was young Madigan did not kick on as expected. Is this so surprising – struggling to handle a (too?) swift & unexpected transition from master’s apprentice to first choice while trying to live up to the standards of a stellar prior season. And to top it all, Gopperth proves more than a bit tasty. I would suggest a dip in form was almost inevitable. No doubt the soothing reassurance that Joe S would have provided would have helped him immeasurably, but surely this still doesn’t equate to MO’C shouldering the blame? I think Madigan will have learnt a lot from last season & I can see him really kicking on this year.

      • I do agree Hairy. I find the ‘It’s all MOC’s fault’ line too simplistic an argument. Ian Madigan just didn’t play that well last year, one cannot lay all the blame for that at Matt O’Connor’s door. At least he salvaged his season in the knockout rounds of the Pro12 in some style, and that provides reason to believe he can be at his best this year. Here’s hoping, I think everyone wants to see it because he is pure box office.

        • Exactly. If Madigan’s poor form was all MOC’s fault then surely MOC deserves a lot of credit for getting performances, match winning cameos, out of Madigan when the crunch games arrived at the end of the season. If MOC’s media image was better then we would be talking about how well he handled Madigan during a difficult season and got him hungry and firing for the critical moments. Truly everything is about perspective

        • Hold your horses there, lads. I never accused MO’C of “ruining” Madigan, nor that everything was his “fault”. In ainm Dé we won the Rabo; credit, where credit is due. The point I was merely trying to make was, that if the sign of a good coach is enabling players to fulfill their potential, then that goal – for whatever reason – was not reached with regard to one of our most promising players, who we would all like to see doing big things for Leinster and Ireland. In recent days both Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip have described our victory in the Rabo final as our most complete performance last season. I disagree. I think the away match against Northamptom deserves that accolade. Man, we had them stuffed before half-time. I think we have still have a squad to be pulling off victories like that this season, even without BO’D. The back-line is in transition. I don’t envy MO’C trying to get the combination there right. . At the same time I do think our backs should be trying to play more with ball in hand and not kicking the damn thing away asking for the opposition to come back at us. There are occasions, when that might be the suitable tactic, but it sure didn’t work against Toulon last Spring nor against Glasgow last Saturday. Marc Caputo and Leo Cullen will, I imagine, have not been too happy with our forwards’ performance in Scotstoun. Looking forward to an marked improvement in that department against the Scarlets, what with the return of Jamie and Even Bigger Dev.

          • Devin Toner looks notably bulkier in photos. Word is he’s up to 127kg. Alun Wyn-Jones made a similar transisiton from (already pretty good) lanky stick of celery to bulky tighthead enforcer, with stellar results. Can Dev take another big step forward and get up to that sort of level?

          • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

             /  September 11, 2014

            Saying that MO’C (due to poor man management) ‘reduced’ Madigan from second best in Ireland to bench warmer is pretty damning no matter what way you cut it!! :-/ Leaving that aside there is no doubt that his progress slowed / stalled last year. But he was relatively young at 24 to be handed the reins at a European powerhouse, a massive step up in pressure & expectation. I don’t know if it was MO’C who decided to bring in Gopperth but given that Madigan’s dip in confidence / from was not so unexpected, maybe he deserves some kudos for forward planning. To repeat myself though, I think the younger man will have matured and learnt a lot from last year (in blue & green). With a few breaks going his way Project Mad Dog can get well & truly back on track!!

          • I hear you, Hairy. Interesting comments by MO’C re Madigan, which gives hope, that they’ll sort it out together: http://thescore.thejournal.ie/ian-madigan-leaves-leinster-1666630-Sep2014/. As regards Madigan being to young to take the helm at Leinster, I sometimes wonder if we’re not too slow sometimes in Ireland and Leinster to bring the young guys through. Take Handre Pollard for example. A couple of months back he was playing against the likes of Garry Ringrose and Cian Kelleher at the U20 WC, was given a couple of cameos with Boks in the Summer internationals and will be starting at ten against the ABs this weekend.

          • Hairy Naomh Mhuire

             /  September 11, 2014

            Interesting article indeed! Not sure I’d give it the same interpretation though. Madigan ‘ needs to develop into the bloke who manages a game’. That’s not even damned with faint praise!! If after 12 months he still thinks Madigan cannot manage a game then things could be worse than we thought!! (Also he needs to not react to Neil Francis! He’s barely one small step above Stephen Jones..)

          • On a second reading, I think you’re probably right, Hairy. Sounds a bit like he’s undercutting him – again….

          • “Interesting” article? Guess what, Hairy. The article has been deleted from thescore.ie website. And if you click on the link, you essentially get a blank page with a search window, in which is written “Ian Madigan leaves Leinster”. WTF?

  8. I do love these start of season blogs. So much hope, fear, expectation, etc.
    My 2 cents

    Front row, remains one of the most effective in Europe, with backup of test level quality – we’re in an enviable position to all clubs except maybe Toulon.
    Locks, questions answered by Toner last season mean his status is far higher – might be targeted as a result this season but out of touch he’s imperious, scrum time he’s very solid and he now manages to get, and stay low at ruck time. Whether it’s Douglas or (a trimmer) McCarthy I’d have no concerns there.
    Back row. O’Brien, Ruddock, Heaslip, Murphy, Jennings, McLaughlin. Seriously talented, great depth.
    Scrum half, could be standout year for Luke McGrath, he’s so bloody quick but he needs to get consistent gametime and sort out the accuracy of his passing, too often on the toes or at head level.
    Out half, Gopperth solid if one dimensional, Madigan an enigma. I know I’m not alone in this, but I adore the way Madigan plays the game. Make him first choice, MOC, trust in him and he’ll reward you. Yes you might have some panicky moments, he might cost us a try or two, but he’ll also score 5+ tries himself. Give him the jersey and trust him.
    Centres, D’arcy really struggled at times last season – reasons for this range from him being knackered or carrying injuries, or just inconsistent form. Massive responsibility on his shoulders this season. I’d be worried especially now that Reid looks like he could miss a big chunk of the season. 13 – who the f*ck knows what’s going to happen there. Answers on a post card
    Wings – decent if a bit unimaginative if one assumes Fitzgerald continues to struggle. If he returns and stays fit, then we’re immediately in good shape on the wings
    Fullback – safe as houses.

    All in all, the squad looks t’riffic – 13 excepted.

    Playing style and attacking intent are the biggest question marks hanging over us – are we a defense of offence oriented team? Do assess every opportunity on its own merits before deciding what to do, or do we play safety first, low risk rugby?

    I hope MOC releases the shackles a bit this season and allows the team to use their intelligence, nous and ultimately to feel empowered to actually go for things. Too often last season there seemed to be confusion or a reluctance to do things on the fly. Too much structure is usually a hallmark of the first season, but a la Deccie, it can be just a coach’s way of doing things. It won’t work with this group of players so give them the broad structures, the processes and mindset and let them do their thing!

    • Nice assessment. Fitzgerald certainly makes the difference between our three quarter-line looking a bit pedestrian and suddenly quite exciting. Dare we dream.

      One player we didn’t mention and maybe should have is Zane Kirchner. After a quiet start he began to show some spark late in the season, culminating in the Pro12 final where he was very influential. Could be set for a big season. And it seems Noel Reid’s injury isn’t as bad as it looked, so that’s a bit of good news.

  9. Stephen

     /  September 10, 2014

    Not to be awkward, but – “Luke McGrath has plenty of attributes of a good scrum half – all of them in fact, except for a crisp passing game – and seems to be improving.”

    Is a crisp passing game not, like, the first criterion of any decent scrum-half? (Speaking as an Ulster fan watching Paul Marshall currently, I *am* aware that it doesn’t appear to be . . .)

    • Yep, it most certainly is. And therien lies the problem.

      It is remarkable how many modern scrum halves are technically poor at passing.

      • VNVObit

         /  September 10, 2014

        Think we need the Peter Stringer passing academy for all Irish scrum halves. I rather have a small scrum half with superb passing skills than a big scrum half with slow delivery. It makes all the difference in getting a back line moving and not allowing the defence to organise

        • toro toro

           /  September 11, 2014

          Luke’s passing was a stand-out feature as a schoolie. He’ll be grand.

  10. Rava

     /  September 10, 2014

    Someone asked earlier who would we most like to step up to the plate this season and I said Luke McGrath. I do think a run of games would help and not just the 10 minute cameos he has been subjected to. I think Leinster should have promoted him up the pecking order last year.
    I know this article is about Leinster but at this stage of their respective careers, McGrath and Marmion should be fighting it out for back-up to Murray.

    As regards MOC, I think he will still see success. Whether the playing style will satisfy the demands of the D4’s is another thing entirely 😉

  11. hulkinator

     /  September 10, 2014

    I think the comparison with Leicester is spot on. Thats where MOC got most of his training as a coach and its clear to see. Leinster have been more one dimensional under MOC and the new signing does little to change that view.

    In MOC’s defence, Leinster are going through a mini transitional period when it comes to their backs. D’Arcy is getting old, Nacewa, Sexton and BOD are gone, Fitzgerald is never there and they’ve also icked up a few injuries. Noel Reid has been a bright spot but others like Fanning and especially Macken are not the most talented of players. Theres a new generation of academy centers coming through so he’ll have more options next season. Will he use those options though??

    • That’s hardly a mini transition, that’s full blown changeover. Failure to acknowledge the extent of their transition is what left Munster in such a heap for so long, Leinster have to learn from that if they want to remain competitive.
      I blogged about this issue a few months ago and was a bit shocked when adding up the numbers, at precisely how many players are needed.

      O’Connor has said that he wants to get in six new players and have been criticized for that, but in my opinion six is the bare minimum. When you include players that you have listed who aren’t retired but continue to have serious question marks, then the number quickly rises to double digits. If Leinster want to be competitive in the next 3-5 years then they will need to work hard in the market in addition to any promising academy players.

    • SportingBench

       /  September 11, 2014

      Interesting thing is that most teams would be delighted to be compared to Leicester. they have an amazing record over the last 15 years. I think it is worth pointing out that only a handful of teams would see being compared to Leicester as a negative. Leinster are of course in that category given their success but it is worth bearing in mind that complaining that Leinster are becoming Leicester is a very niche issue.

  12. Andrew097

     /  September 10, 2014

    MOC has two fine outhalfs of which both are underperforming. It’s like his selection policy of leave them out then select them has them both jittery instead of fighting for the spot. They are both top blokes who will both look after the team first then themselves. He should just rotate them turn about and get out of their way. One of Leinsters strengths should be either coming on to finish off what the other started.

  13. Leinsterlion

     /  September 10, 2014

    I’m going to list my wants for the season.

    Madigan at 10

    Anyone but Macken at 13

    MOC out.

    Beating Munster.

    Pro 12

    Anything outside of that is a bonus.

  14. curates_egg

     /  September 11, 2014

    Would have serious worries about our backline. Reddan and D’Arcy staying available seems key to our season. The reality is that, while we have one of the strongest forward squads in Europe, we are starting to look a bit threadbare beyond 8 (unless Fitzgerald really is back and fit).

    O’Connor seems to have made the judgement that the resources at our disposal are not good enough to play a more skill-based game. That is reflected in his player preferences and it doesn’t look like changing based on the initial personnel choices this season. The problem is that we also don’t have big or strong enough players, so it will de facto limit our possibilities.

    A place in the last 8 in Europe would seem to be ours to lose but not a foregone conclusion. Can’t see us going much further though. I can see us coming in the top 2 in the Pro12 and then it will depend on respective squad healths and morale.

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