Matt O’Connor’s Tactical Rigidity

The heat is being turned up on Matt O’Connor as Leinster continually struggle for form. Last year, they won a richly entertaining final against Glasgow to secure silverware for the fourth season running – a fine achievement, but it covered over a whole lot of pretty mediocre rugby over the course of the season. Aside from the Glasgow game and the Saints away game, Leinster didn’t do a whole lot, and were pretty fortunate in the semi-final to get past Ulster. As for the HEC exit, that was as supine as anything from the bad old days.

As we mentioned in Monday’s post, we took the view that O’Connor was bedding down his systems and that a more cohesive and, indeed, watchable brand of rugby would follow this season.

So far, though, the signs of progress have been minimal. To give O’Connor his dues, he has had to deal with a horrendous injury list and his team won their first two rounds of the Heineken Cup, including a hard-fought tussle away to Castres. But there was something so depressingly reductive about Saturday’s game against Ospreys that it felt like a tipping point. What if last season wasn’t a stepping stone and was in fact as good as it gets? How exactly does Matt O’Connor want the team to play?

To these eyes, it seems like he wants to play a lot of one-out stuff and kick the ball a huge amount. Which is fine, if it’s done well. Ireland have just been lauded for a campaign in which they passed little and kicked a lot. But rather than kicking to reclaim contestable balls, like Ireland, Leinster seem to deliberately kick the ball to the back field and chase up in defensive alignment, in the hope of forcing the opposition into errors in their own half. If Graham Taylor were a rugby coach, that’s probably how he’d set up his team too (aside: does this make Jimmy Gopperth the Carlton Palmer of Leinster)?

Playing a simple gameplan is no bad thing in itself, but playing it so badly, and when it seems so unsuited to the players available to him, is another. It appears that he is rigidly attached to a particular playing style regardless of what resources are available to him.

It’s the exact opposite to how a certain J Schmidt operates. Schmidt is a master of pragmatism, of identifying what resources he has available to him and maximising them accordingly. When he arrived at Leinster, his first statement was that he wanted to make them ‘the best passing team in the Northern hemisphere’. He recognised that he had internationals across the backline, a rugby genius at 10 and crucially, time to hone the players’ passing skills on the training paddock.  When Luke Fitzgerald ran the length of the pitch against Bath, the initial space had been created by nothing more complicated than fast, accurate passing across the backline.

With Ireland, Schmidt has identified a lack of training time as his chief obstacle, so the chances of turning Ireland into a similar passing team are remote.  Instead, he has handed the team a simple gameplan that they can execute to a high degree of accuracy. It speaks of a coach who is flexible enough to tailor his gameplan to what he has at his disposal. The one binding ingredient is accuracy of execution.

Even Heineke “the only fetcher I need is my son to get me a beer” Meyer has shown some tactical flexibilty of late. The high priest of Bulls-style bosh-it-up-the-middle had the Springboks playing heads-up pass-first rugby in this year’s Rugby Championship. The primary reason for this particular Pauline converstion is the existence of hot youngsters Willie “nice pass mate” le Roux and Handre Pollard – not much point in playing a pair of gap-spotting gainline merchants if you are going to be asking them to Morne the ball into orbit.

O’Connor, on l’autre hand, seems determined to bring his rugby-loigue-style bish-bash-and-boot game to Leinster regardless of whether or not those players that have to implement it are Jamie Heaslip, Ian Madigan, Noel Reid and Gordon D’arcy. Talk of turning Leinster into Leicester appears off the mark – Leicester were never this turgid.  Against Munster in the Palindrome earlier this season, at one stage Munster were down to 13 men but Leinster persisted in kicking the ball long. It showed an astonishing tactical rigidity.

The natives are getting restless. Leinster fans are a demanding bunch. Truth be told, they’ve become a little spoiled over the last five years, at times conveniently forgetting how Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright helped grind out 9-6 wins away from home in 2008. They expect not only to win silverware, but also to see the team play with a certain panache. The province has a long tradition of dashing three-quarters and exciting, running rugby. To go against that is one thing – Cheika did, after all, so it’s not anathema – but to go against it and fail miserably would be entirely another. It’s fine playing Puma captain Pippo Contepomi over a raw young Jonny Sexton, but it’s different playing an out-of-sorts Kiwi journeyman Jimmy Gopperth over improving Ireland international Ian Mad-dog. We’re not joining the ‘MOC out’ brigade yet, but the bedding-in period is over.

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46 Comments

  1. I agree with much of that guys.

    What I really find funny though is the uproar this week, and the cries that have ‘Leinster should be playing entertaining rugby’ which have cropped up again and again in the last 18 months or so.

    Seems many people have short memories as you rightly point out.

    As I point out here, along with the MOC gameplan, the leadership void in that Leinster side is very worrying, and it’s an issue that many seem to gloss over in the hunt for our head coach’s head:
    http://ovaldigest.com/index.php/leinsters-pack-leaders-need-show-teeth/

    • curates_egg

       /  December 2, 2014

      I would also rate bloodgate as our most important match (and very enjoyable) but I would take you up on one quote: “Leinster mauled, tackled and rucked like tigers.”
      Away with your tigers comparisons: first MOC, now you.
      We are lions.
      In case you forgot, two games later in that same competition, our lions declawed the tigers (albeit MOC only joined them the following year).
      Please correct to: “Leinster mauled, tackled and rucked like lions.”

      • @LeinsterPAGuy

         /  December 2, 2014

        Well said Egg.

        “Oh I’d rather be a lion than a tiger,
        Yes I’d rather be a lion than a tiger,
        Oh I’d rather be a lion, rather be a lion, rather be a lion than a tiger.”

  2. Niall D

     /  December 2, 2014

    You realise that with all this Leinster and Ulster bashing, you are now going to have start plagiarising Girry and say nice things about Munster

    • curates_egg

       /  December 2, 2014

      And writing pieces about Connacht ;p
      Actually, Connacht are pretty easy on the eye right now. A positive piece on the Pat Lam project would be warranted.

  3. Yossarian

     /  December 2, 2014

    I have a degree of sympathy for gopperth. At times over the past two seasons I have seen him take the ball flat and attack the gain line and actually thought that might be his preferred style but he is sitting deep and kicking because he is following instruction. That really just adds fuel to the moc fire though because even at his best he isn’t as good as madigan at that.
    Leinster fans have been happy to win ugly when the day required it but at home with plenty of attacking power at your disposal against inferior opposition is not that day. This notion of “territory” being all important is somewhat dated at club level where possession and the type of ball you have can lead to scores from further out. At international level where space is at a premium and errors are severely punished it may be required but the Rabo is much more forgiving and an attacking game is not the risk moc seems to think it is.

  4. Spot on lads.

    I make no apology for being demanding because, quite simply, apart from a dearth of options at outside centre, the raw materials are there to play whatever way the conditions/opposition/situation requires. Yes there has been injuries but when you have close to 2 test level players for each position, the excuse rings a bit hollow.

    Obviously winning games is the most important measure of a team, but a close second is the style of play. Every team worth their salt has an ethos to their play – a default position that is ingrained in each and every player putting on the jersey. For Munster it’s pashun, field position, forward power, etc. Leinster should be about running, risk taking rugby.

    And this ethos dictates the recruitment policy, team selection all the way through to who sits at the helm. It’s so disappointing to see such massively talented players feel completely inhibited in their style of play.

    • Munstermicko

       /  December 2, 2014

      Here Here.

      All ye need is pashun. Hopefully de boys will do a peice on the Euro games later in the week. Cant wait to see Pashun verus Clermont chokers on saturday. Yin and Yang.
      Hopefully Moc does the business in the back to backs and gets retained another few years….it will be great to have all our brethern from outside dublin come back into the Munsterfold

    • Bueller

       /  December 2, 2014

      Genuinely not trying to troll here but who are the ‘running, risk taking rugby players’ in the current squad? Aside from Fitzgerald and Madigan I can’t think of too many in the current back division. Aside from those 2, one of whom is regularly injured, the best ball handlers are probably in the front row with Cronin and Healy. I am open to correction but I don’t see a plenitude of ‘heads-up’ rugby players in the squad.
      Have to say MOC definitely doesn’t seem to be doing Leinster any favours but I cant see an expansive risk taking game as the solution.

      • Eoin Reddan, Gordon D’arcy, Rob Kearney, Noel Reid and even Fergus McFadden are players capable of playing a good possession game. In the pack, Jamie Heaslip is easily the best ball handler, one of the most skilful forwards around.

        • Bueller

           /  December 2, 2014

          Certainly a bunch of capable (more than capable) players but having watched all a lot of the course of their careers I can’t agree that any are fantastic ‘heads-up’ rugby players, Noel Reid and Heaslip aside (I did forget to mention JH earlier). They all have great strengths but can’t agree that ‘expansive rugby’ would be any of their fortes.
          I’m not saying that I have a solution to Leinsters game-plan, and certainly the current one seems overly reductive but the calls for expansive ‘leinstertainment’ from some commentators seems wide of the mark to me.

          • D6W

             /  December 2, 2014

            Kearney is definitely a heads up attacking player when he gets the ball in hand. Also, Kirchner is another attacking Leinster back not mentioned above.

          • Kearney, Reddan and McFadden were key players under Joe Schmidt so I’m not sure about all that, though I would agre that McFadde, or the Kildare Lewis Moody as we call him, wouldn’t necessarily be the world’s most heads-up wing.

            Your last point is fair though, but we’re keen to stress we’re not calling for Leinstertainment, or crazy rugby for the sake of it. Just winning rugby. Our point is that the resources available would be better deployed if Leinster played a more constructive, possession-based game.

      • curates_egg

         /  December 2, 2014

        I would largely agree with the assessment of where the squad is (although Madigan is not regularly injured – he has been very consistently fit) but there is definitely a middle ground between flinging the ball around and what we are doing now.

      • Billy

         /  December 2, 2014

        Agree with Bueller here. Not having a go at McFadden, D’Arcy, D. Kearney, Fanning as they are all solid pros, but the pulse hardly quickens when they get the ball in space. Would getting the ball in their hands really be the answer to Leinster’s problems?

        Currently Leinster have one back in the starting Ireland team – Super Rob. With all players fit and firing they might, being generous, possibly have two (Lukey Fitz) These are not the days under St. Joe when Leinster dominated the Irish backline.

        Also, it’s faintly ridiculous to simultaneously laud Schmidt and condemn MOC for essentially the same gameplan. Leinster’s injury list is ridiculous, it must be nearly impossible to develop any sort of cohesive game plan when you start a game with your 3rd choice loose head, academy hooker, third choice tighthead and a back row that may contain your sixth, seventh and eighth choices (assuming Heaslip, SOB, Ruddock, Jennings and possibly but probably not anymore Kev McL). Can you blame him for going back to basics?

        • ‘Also, it’s faintly ridiculous to simultaneously laud Schmidt and condemn MOC for essentially the same gameplan.’

          THIS.

          It’s frankly hilarious how the narrative around a coach can become so set in stone that it’s almost impossible to make people see sense. There are a heap of mitigating factors around why Leinster might not be playing entertaining rugby, and would be kicking more than usual.

          Now I’m not saying that the team is playing well, or indeed kicking well. It’s not, but we are 4 points from the top of the league and sitting pretty in Europe, despite overcoming one of the worst injury crisis in Irish rugby history.

          A bit more middle ground is needed, rather than this incessant calling for the coaches head stuff that’s been going on since last year.

          • @LeinsterPAGuy

             /  December 2, 2014

            MOC’s #1 fan to the rescue.

            Lot more to head coach than just the game plan:
            Media interaction.
            Player development / upskilling to implement said gameplan.
            Team selection.

            All these areas have been brutal. St. Joe can play the Irish team any way he wants because he has built a level of trust and delivered improvement again and again.

            There were MOC bashers from the start, many of the skeptics (general Leinster fans) held back but now they can’t take it much more and feel the need to voice their opinions with very valid reasons.

          • If I may say so, I think we’ve been pretty balanced in our critique of the coach so far. We’re not forcing a ‘narrative’ here and gave Matt something of a free pass last season, but this is his second season and we would hope to see an improvement. It hasn’t happened. Leinster are hovering around the top 4 of the league, but they lost to Connacht and at home to Munster. They have done no better than would be expected, and they are not playing well by any measure.

            @Billy we made it very clear in the piece that the difference between MOC and Schmidt’s gameplans is that Ireland are kicking to regain possession where Leinster are not.

          • Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting ye’re forcing a narrative at all. Rather it’s been a wider thing from ‘fans’ of ‘blame the coach, it’s all his fault’.

            There are definitely valid reasons to be concerned, and I’m all for debating them.

            It’s obviously partly an issue with the coach, but there are also other mitigating factors that simply aren’t been thought about by those calling for his head. As you’ve said above WOC, he’s done really what’s expected so far.

            What I really don’t agree with though, and frankly, find quite hilarious, is this idea that Leinster have some god given right to be playing Harlem Globetrotter style rugby and swatting aside teams, and if we don’t, fans are whinging about ‘not entertaining’.

            The whole debate is just too polarised, and people have made up their mind from mid last year.

            But if you look at it results wise, we won the Rabo last year and were knocked out at the QF stage by the eventual winners.

            Despite all the upheaval, we’re 4 points from the top of the league this year, and a win on Sunday would have us looking good for a home QF.

  5. crowlem1

     /  December 2, 2014

    Spot on. His incessant moaning and whinging after matches doesn’t exact endear him to fans either

    • Yes – you can take the man out of Leicester etc.

      • Mary Hinge

         /  December 2, 2014

        As a Connacht fan, remember being very pissed off at his graceless performance in the post-match interviews after last year’s game in the RDS when we were a simple missed Dan Parks penalty away from a win and had played all the rugby!

        • The repeat of that fixture falls badly for them (between the Quins double header and the Munster rematch) and well for us (between the Challenge Cup and an unwinnable fixture in Ravenhill). I smell an ambush.

    • crowlem1

       /  December 2, 2014

      I also think that while his record at leinster (Pro12 winners etc.) does stand to him to an extent, it is important to look at the squad players he has at his disposal- which, injuries aside this year, has to be one of the most talented in Europe. Trophies, semis/finals of ERC should be the expectation for this group of players.

  6. curates_egg

     /  December 2, 2014

    For me, the problem is not the ‘style’ of play – The Stoop 2009 remains one of our best performances. I actually think those going on about the Leinster way are in a very small minority but there is a sizeable chunk of fans who are worried about the precipitous decline in basic skills and facets of our play.

    Last season, we won ugly. However, our defence also improved towards the second half of the season, so it looked like there was some progress in terms of systems (even if I grudgingly admitted that). This season, it seems we are back to the bad old days. Yes, we haven’t been helped by injuries BUT LEAKING 4 TRIES TO TREVISO (who could hardly buy a try this year and were missing their internationals) is a true nadir. Of course, it doesn’t help when you are constantly kicking the ball away and forced to make dozens of extra tackles (even worse when you have small backs)…but something is not right.

    Last season, I kept hoping O’Connor was keeping something up his sleeve – and the Northampton and Glasgow games kept that hope alive. There have been no such bones on offer this season though.

    • On a Ragga Tip

       /  December 2, 2014

      We don’t like it, sack the manager? I know what Nigel Owens would say…

      I joined yesterday’s conversation too late so I’ll repeat it here, be careful what you wish for. Leinster have most try BPs and are top try scorers this season, were only just pipped by Ospreys to same accolade last season (who didn’t qualify). Most tries conceded in top half though. If anything, should they be trying to tighten up rather than cut loose?

  7. Roundy

     /  December 2, 2014

    There are three (missed Ospreys game so cant comment) performances this season which for me are worrying and sum up where Leinster are going. The games against Connacht, Munster and Treviso showed us up to be soft and disorganised! Munster in particular came to Dublin and bullied us to such an extent that even when they were down to 13 men we still didnt have the balls to go at em and continued to kicked away possession. In Treviso and Galway we stood off and allowed them come at us and the Italians in particular looked better than they actually are. Having watched Connacht lately I am seriously worried about the game in a few weeks in the RDS. Looking forward to seeing them play but worry we will take a beating again. Goppert is obviously low on confidence playing the game he is being asked to play. We need form players especially in the piviotal positiions. The fixture list over the next five weeks is a dog. Two HC games and three Interpros! (Who the hell came up with that?) Squad rotation will be key. Which games will Mads start at ten?

  8. D6W

     /  December 2, 2014

    You are right that last Saturday’s game seemed like a tipping point. I have never seen Leinster play with such a lack of resolve. It was as if they were not really convinced about their own game plan. As Len1979 mentioned yesterday, I could not believe they took a penalty kick from 5 metres out under the posts with only 90 seconds to go, rather than trying to deprive Ospreys of LBP. And that isn’t wisdom after the fact, myself and those around me at the game were screaming at them from the stand to take the scrum. Talk about risk averse.

    I think there is a bit of a disservice to Leinster fans by constantly claiming they are demanding to be entertained in addition to winning. I suggest Leinster fans just want their team to play good rugby, just like other provinces’ fans. Even if it has to be MOC-ball, at the very least, we want them to play MOC-ball well, which they definitely don’t. And apart from the fact you need more than one style of play, a plan b (surely every team just practices kick returns now in week before Leinster games), our defence is porous.

    • Jojo

       /  December 2, 2014

      Agreed. This idea that Leinster fans are looking for off the cuff rugby is bs. High tempo , physical and precise rugby is what we have got used to. Not flinging the ball around. We expect professionalism and rugby nous

  9. There is a complete lack of tactical variations in Leinster’s style of play as witnessed over last weekend in the RDS. What way does MOC actually want Leinster to play ?

  10. Riocard O Tiarnaigh

     /  December 2, 2014

    I’ve given out enough in the past about MO’C and his, IMO, giving Madigan the run around instead of backing Ireland’s number 2 outhalf in that position, so I’ll hold my fire. Hopefully things will gel against the Quins at the weekend and with big guns returning from injury we can kick on – pardon the pun – for the rest of the season. COYBIB!!!!!!!

  11. Leinsterlion

     /  December 2, 2014

    “Ex Leicester coach with no track record in playing expansive, high tempo rugby, in kick chase rugby shocker”

    Called it when he was appointed and stand by my assessment, he is out of his depth, if we were playing as badly as we are due to not having the players to implement his systems, that would be fine. But all we have done as regards gameplan is caveman stuff, and if that is not MOC’s directive then players would be getting dropped, they aren’t. Nothing will change, MOC will play Gopperth and we will get knocked out in the quarters and make it to the league final or semi….just like Leicester did every year under him. If that is good enough for Mick Dawson, give the guy a ten year extension, because he will do that year in year out with the conveyor belt in Leinster and the finances available.

  12. Andrew097

     /  December 2, 2014

    Leinster are a shambles compared to the side Schmidt sent out on the park. All the things that Leinster had been good at has slipped. The scrum, rucking and mauling, passing, tackling, running lines, support handling, line out and down right cussedness plus organisation, it’s all gone.
    I have seen all of these current players give great performances it was a hallmark, that it did not matter who played in the jersey they still played well.
    The bloke in the stand behind me was giving out about JG missing touch with all the kicks but as I said he must be under orders because if he was ment to hit the touch line he would be dropped for missing it so often.
    That tactic of booting long moving the line up, and taking the ball off the opposition was fine for six months about eight years ago. Now the teams are well organised for this long ball game and the pressure just returns to the kicking side.
    Leinster are playing a very limited type of rugby and they are playing it badly. Cannot see them winning the back to backs

  13. My biggest gripe is that we look effin clueless with the ball. I don’t think fans asking that Leinster try different things and attempt to run the ball is about escaping the ennui of Dublin life. I’m not under the illusion that by simply running instead of kicking we’ll become kings of Europe again. But whatever it is Matt has them doing so far is ineffective. I nearly turned off the Munster match this year when I saw a certain much maligned player kick the ball away against a lightened Munster team at home. My beef is with the unintelligent play, and it’s not something I have come to expect from Leinster since Cheika took the reigns. And not something I think any fanbase should accept

    A change needs to come about because two good games in a 12 months is inexcusable.

  14. Question: So when Sexton returns, how does that work out with MOC? Will he be content to play MOC’s more conservative game plan, or will he try to force the attack more, play flatter to the gainline and offer a more accurate kicking game? Will MOC ease up on the rigidity with Reddan, Sexton, Madigan and Kearney in the backs, and if he doesn’t, how long will the players put up with not playing in a way that makes best use of their strengths?

    • curates_egg

       /  December 3, 2014

      You are taking it for granted MOC will be there then?

      • mxyzptlk

         /  December 3, 2014

        How long is MOC’s contract? And has there been any talk of who could replace him? Can’t remember if it was on twitter or elsewhere, but I’ve seen people pining for Conor O’Shea. But as far as I know, he’s signed on with Quins until 2016.

        • curates_egg

           /  December 4, 2014

          That is the big question. AFAIK it is 3 years but nobody has ever answered whether it is a 2+1 (like with Penney) or a full 3.

          Lots of people have lots of ideas about managers. On the Leinster fans forum, they go from Robbie Deans(!) to Girve the Swerve to O’Shea to many others. There is a whole thread dedicated to it.

          I guess the question Dawson will have to ask himself either at the end of this season or next is does he go native, like Munster, or go foreign again.

          Girve has the As playing great rugby but does he have the experience? What about Leo (who is clearly being groomed)? Jackman is doing an amazing job with Grenoble but could they get him back and would both sides want it?

          After the world cup, there will be various big name coaches knocking about. What can we afford though?

          So far Axel and co. seems to be working out well for Munster. Pat Lam and co. really seems to be doing a fantastic job at Connacht.

          • mxyzptlk

             /  December 5, 2014

            I really like the idea of Jackman. He’s one of my favorite rugby nerds to listen to, and seems especially good at developing the right game plan for the given resources. But he seems to be having a great time of it in France and may not feel like returning just yet.

    • Good bloody question. This is why we felt compelled to ask – what if last season wasn’t so much a bedding in and was in fact as good as it gets.

    • asoreleftshoulder

       /  December 4, 2014

      Sexton will have to play the MoC way.If you play a team sport you simply have to play the gameplan that you practise in training,no matter how much you disagree with it or how flawed it is.If Sexton decided to play a different style of rugby while the others on the team were playing the way they have been trained to then you’d have an even more confused looking side.

  15. Great reading below the line, thanks everyone for your input. I think it’s fair to say Leinster fans have presented their case well; that they’re not being unrealistic or asking for Leinstertainment for its own sake, but that they feel the current brand of rugby is directionless and purely executed, and that wanting to see a more constructive gameplan and accurate execution isn’t asking for too much.

  16. Speaking as a Munster man I have to say that the fear factor that surrounded Leinster during Joe’s era has evaporated. In those day’s we kind of knew before any meetings with Leinster that they would have to under perform a bit for us to get something form the game. The lady boys tag was well and truly put to bed as their forward play was every bit as good and a lot of games out performing their back play. A more complete team in Europe you could not find. While Leinster’s great success was tough for us to take down South, we at least could enjoy some of the fantastic rugby that was played. A lot of those players are still there, Sexton returns next year and Madigan is a more than able replacement till then. The coach just isn’t getting the best out of what he has at his disposal. The game plan, as I understand it, is to play low risk rugby revolving around a kicking game. The Leinster kick chase is poor, their back line invention seems to be non existent and defense is less than water tight. Add to that a forward pack and set piece that aren’t as fearsome as in previous years even though there are still top class players in it and you have a team that the opposition really fancies their chances against. This could all come back to bite me in the backside of course but at the present time I’m quite happy as a Munster fan that of the two teams, we look the better coached, brighter and hungrier and therefore are better set for success.

    This is why MOC is under pressure, his style of play would I’m sure be accepted by Leinster fans if it was played well, and showed signs of bringing success. At the moment it’s hard to see that happening.

  17. Andrew097

     /  December 4, 2014

    Every team has their culture in Leinster our culture is to use all fifteen players as being the most effective way to win games. Our most successful schools and clubs have always followed that line of philosophy by and large. Its always been that way since the inception of some of the oldest cup competitions Schools Cup, Club Cup and Towns Cup. . Schmidt was pushing against an open door as far as Leinster culture was concerned as little encouragement is needed to throw the ball wide. He provided the accuracy and honesty needed to improve the skills to execute the intention.
    This one out drive it up the middle, kick it long just goes against all that Leinster rugby has coached in the schools and minis for the last hundred years.

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