Matty Gets The Chop

Matt O’Connor has been sacked by Leinster Rugby. It brings an end to an undistinguished chapter in Leinster’s history.  Now that he’s been shown the door, perfect hindsight allows us to see the recent public slapdowns from Joe Schmidt and Shane Jennings as the death throes of a dying regime.  The news will be well recieved by a fnabase which had grown frustrated by the team’s performances and results over the last number of months.

It’s alsp a little surprising, and the details of the exact status of the third year on his contract seemed to be shrouded in mystery, but the Leinster branch has bit the bullet. It’s the right decision; Matt O’Connor had his good days, none better than their victory over Glasgow which secured silverware in his first season, but while he was given a bit of a free pass in his first year for some of the error-strewn rugby he deployed, the second season was one of marked decline. Any glass-half-full analysis of his first season quickly evaporated as Leinster’s attack and set pieces became sloppier than ever. In short, the rugby Leinster have played has been dull, unambitious and inaccurate. The players spoke highly of O’Connor, but their actions on the pitch have spoken louder.  A third year of such torpor was unimaginable, and there was no signifier that things were about to improve.

It’s worth remembering that when O’Connor was hired, the keyword was ‘continuity’; Leinster’s previous coach had been a roaring success and O’Connor was seen as somebody who would be able to keep the train on the rails. He was seen as a coach with a similar profile, having been a No.2 at a big club, and his Wikipedia page described him as ‘steeped in the ethos of the ACT Brumbies’, which appeared to give off all the right vibes for a team which had come to be regarderd as the most accurate passing team in Europe. It’s been alarming just how little continuity he has provided, how different his ethos has been to Schmidt’s, and indeed how it appears to owe nothing whatsever to the ACT Brumbies.

The excusemakers in the meeja have repeatedly lined up the Sexton-O’Driscoll-Nacewa absenteeism argument, which has been a factor for sure, but doesn’t excuse the shoddy passing, directionless game-planning and ho-hum breakdown work that have littered every single game this season. There has been no occasion this year on which Leinster have cut loose and looked a great team, or even a potentially great one. Even in the days of Bad Leinster, they were able to conjure up occasional brilliant performances. The narrow loss in Toulon was held up in some quarters as ‘epic’, but the truth is it was a torpid match between two nervous teams content to hang in for as long as possible and wait for mistakes.

It seems from the outside that O’Connor simply didn’t ‘get’ Leinster. While the phrase ‘buying into the ethos’ of a province is almost always applied to Munster, it would appear that Matt O’Connor didn’t buy into the Leinster ethos, where the players and fans are used to playing the game with a certain style. That’s not out of a sense of entitlement, and nor does it make Leinster fans ‘spoiled’, just as much as Munster fans expecting their team to play with a certain level of ‘passion’ doesn’t make them entitled. It’s just in keeping with the identity of a province which has a long tradition of dashing three-quarters, and has operated on the principle of giving them the ball at least a few times a match. Every club or province has a sense of identity, something that makes them who they are, and if it’s going to be compromised it had damn well better be worth it.  O’Connor never really presented any evidence that his vision for Leinster Rugby was an improvement on the old one.

Judging by the players’ comments, O’Connor is an ‘enabler’, a Declan Kidney-style coach, who allows the players leeway to make their own decisions on the pitch. The players appear to like him, and he seems to be a decent fellow. But perhaps Leinster’s success has allowed people to forget that this is a group that has done best when dealing with hard and exacting taskmasters. It seems that despite the large medal hauls, they still benefit from the big stick treatment.

Now, for the tricky bit. Amid the hallooing that an unpopular coach has been shown the door, there remains the important job of identifying and securing his successor. Previous appointments have been put in place long before the season was over, with both Cheika and Schmidt giving notice of their plans to leave well in advance, affording the men upstairs ample time to identify the next recruit. That won’t be the case this time around, and the race is now on. The risk is that they fall into the same trap as Ulster, patching together solutions on a season-to-season basis. The only certainty is that it is only a matter of time before the likes of Graham Henry, Nick Mallett and – of course – Jake White are linked to the role.

The State of Denmark

Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings were considered something of a bellwether for the health of Leinster rugby in general in the noughties. When they jumped ship in 2005, it was considered a damning indictment of where Leinster were, and where they were (not) going. After two seasons abroad, their return was an endorsement of Cheika – the Wild Geese had bought into his vision for the province and were in a position to bring knowledge of one of the best professional setups in Europe and stand apart as exemplars of standards within the squad.

It was a model for successfully on-boarding a host of young Irish players of Lions standard that would backbone the team for a decade and more (Healy, O’Brien, Heaslip, Sexton, Fitzgerald, Kearney) handily augmented by selected foreigners like Rocky Elsom, Nathan Hines, Pippo Contepomi, Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn. And of course, his BOD-ness.

Last year, Leo Cullen retired and joined the coaching staff as forwards coach and Shane Jennings is now repeating the trick – although he is getting out of rugger altogether and joining the big bad world of business instead. Cullen’s transition into the tracksuit has been difficult – Leinster’s on-field play has been as un-structured and aimless as it has been since before he left for the Tigers and the pack has been dragged along by Jamie Heaslip for much of the season – but the large stock of goodwill built up over the years has insulated him from much of the criticism being directed at the rest of the ticket. While it can be hard to parse exactly who deserves criticism for what, he should be reasonably culpable.  The stock-in-trade of most team’s forward play – mauling, rucking, set-piece, has been as poor as any of the other elements of Leinster’s play.  Against that, it’s his first season going it full-time and he needs some time to learn his trade.

As an insider, we are unlikely to learn Cullen’s true thoughts on where Leinster are right now – but that isn’t of course the case with Jennings, who can fire bazookas all he wants now he is getting out. And he took the opportunity to do just that, in conversation with O’Reilly on Sunday. Not many were spared:

  • He doesn’t see “selflessness” from Leinster’s international cohort where they work as hard as the non-international folks when they return from duty
  • On the flip side of that, he hasn’t seen the non-internationals take ownership of the team during November and February/March
  • He sees “guys” (players, coaches, both?) who have come into a HEC-winning environment without understanding what it took to get there

It was pretty damning stuff, which we would love to link but for the Times paywall, and it certainly should be very concerning from a Leinster perspective. The squad are certainly suffering from losing the on-field leadership of Cullen and BOD this season, and now they have someone considered something of a squad muse filleting the players’ attitude on the way out. It’s clear that whatever is going on at Leinster is not working on the pitch, and one has to suspect it isn’t working off the pitch either – while it’s fair to ask whether there is any residual bitterness over no longer being as close to the first XV in the past, the vast majority of Leinster fans would take Jennings’ thoughts at face value.  He has always appeared a thoughtful, considered type, and not one to throw his toys out of the pram.

The supreme irony of this is that Jennings’ official send-off to the fans came at half time in front of a half-full RDS in a damp squib of a game in which Leinster failed to score at home to Treviso for over an hour. He deserved better, and his parting words should be heeded by all.

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.

Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!

RIP Leinstertainment

There was a documentary released a tad over 20 years ago called ‘An Impossible Job’ about Graham Taylor’s inept attempt to qualify England for the soccer World Cup in the USA. Taylor had a couple of fundamental issues that made his job impossible – he took it on right after England had achieved what was (and still is) their best performance in a major tournament not held in England, and the sky high expectations of fans who weren’t of a disposition to accept that Carlton Palmer and Les Ferdinand perhaps weren’t quite as good as Ronald Koeman and Ruud Gullit.

Its a decent comparison to Matt O’Connor’s lot when taking over from Joe Schmidt at Leinster – two Heineken Cups, a Euro-vase and a Pro12 title (in their third successive final) were won with style and verve and Leinster fans have become a little sated. Following Schmidt out the door were Isa Nacewa (retirement) and Jonny Sexton (Croissants and Coffee) to be replaced by Jimmy Gopperth (Newcastle Falcons) and Zane Kirchner (in November).

Schmidt was revered by Leinster fans for his intelligent and accurate rugby and for the feral manner in which his charges hoovered up the best in Europe and spat them out. Eviscerations of opponents in the RDS/Aviva were common and Leinstertainment became a frequently-used truism about the best team Irish provincial rugby has produced. O’Connor came unheralded from Leicester Tigers, an excellent team but associated with a style some Leinster fans consider beneath them – conveniently forgetting both the way Mike Cheika steadied the ship by grinding out wins through Ollie le Roux and Stan Wright, and how the sainted Schmidt’s teams played away from home in Europe, where ruthless pragmatism was the order of the day.

Leinster won the Pro12 in style last year, but limped out of Europe, albeit against a frightening Toulon team – the season was reasonably successful, and, on paper, better than the previous one where Leinster were dumped out of the HEC early and would surely have lost the final had Ulster not had to cede home advantage. That Leinster have lost some of their sheen is in no doubt – the accuracy of the Schmidt era felt like it ebbed away last year and the team often laboured in possession. O’Connor, predictably, got most of the blame, but there are some pretty big mitigating factors.

Leinster’s starting pack contains five current Ireland starters (DJ Church, Rosser, Lighthouse Toner, SOB and Heaslip), one player expected to make a serious push for the XV this year (Rhys Ruddock), and Ireland’s entire backup front row are Leinstermen. This pack anchored the Six Nations champions and has been among the best in Europe for several year now. In contrast, the current roster of backs is arguably the third best in Ireland, with only Bob a guaranteed Ireland starter. O’Connor lost his two most influential backs before he started and Leinster’s best ever player after his first season. They were not adequately replaced, although Kirchner was increasingly finding his feet as his first year went on. It’s pretty easy to see why playing a forward-oriented game suits his personnel.

One of the biggest rods used to beat O’Connor is the Ian Madigan one – we have been Madigan fans from year zilch, and he is an outstanding natural talent. The accepted wisdom among a significant chunk of the Leinster support was that, not only was Mads a sure thing to smoothly step into Jonny’s shoes, but it was actually a good thing that Sexton was forced abroad, as it would save the new coach the headache of how to fit both Madigan and Sexton into the team. We were worried that it wouldn’t be as easy as that – Sexton was the Lions fly-half and a key driver of the team. Sure, Mads looked great off the bench or against mediocre opponents in the Pro12, but it’s a different game with the pressure on.

Last year, O’Connor selected the journeyman (sorry, but it’s true) Gopperth ahead of Madigan for all the big games, and the perception was the Madigan was getting a raw deal . Mads did finish the season very strongly, for province and country, but there is no doubt who MOC saw as his first choice 10. It’s easy, and convenient, to jump on the “MOC ruined Mads” bandwagon but we just aren’t buying it – if Madigan was tearing up trees in training and MOC thought he could execute the game he wanted to play, he’d have been picked. Simples. But he couldn’t get Gopperth out of the team.

Now this season, Leinster have started the year poorly, and #MOCOut was trending on Twitter on Friday. But, again, it’s another over-reaction – it’s not quite in the Hook “Schmidt has lost the dressing room” from September 2010, but it’s just not that simple. For a start, the  first two games kind of went to the script:

  • Glasgow (A) – loss, with bonus point. Glasgow are one of the best sides in the league, and Leinster had humiliated them in their last fixture – they could expect a massive reaction. Glasgae were at home, and Leinster never start well – a losing bonus point was what most expected going into the fixture
  • Scarlets (H) – win, with bonus point. When you are pissed off and want a game to play yourself back into form, home to the Scarlets is about as good as it gets. Tackling is optional and set pieces are easy. Sweet – five points and all is well.
  • Connacht (A) – loss, with bonus point. Now, the performance was poor, and a team with 11 internationals should do better. But its a perennial bogey fixture for Leinster, and they were playing  a Connacht team with momentum and chips on their shoulder big enough to earn Axel’s respect. A setback, but not an absolute disaster.

Leinster need to get their season going, but not only is it early days, the fixture list from here to Christmas is packed with winnable fixtures – indeed, it’s entirely feasible they won’t lose again until Stephen’s Day, when passion and honesty will be in the brave and faithful air in Limerick. Have a look:

  • September: home to Cardiff is essentially a banker. Nothing to see here
  • October: the Big Match in the Palindrome against Munster – normally an awful spectacle, but Leinster will be favourites and aren’t likely to fall flat here. Then it’s Zebre away and Wasps at the RDS – two wins surely. Next up is a trip to Castres to face the HEC’s favourite bunnies – assuming they don’t try a jot in the ERCC as well, Leinster’s pack should make this one winnable. Last up, Embra at home – five points please.
  • November: it will be the reserves, but then Leinster’s are better than most. Treviso away and the Hairsprays at home – both eminently winnable, although Ospreys typically make life difficult for Leinster.
  • December: first up, the double-header with Quins. Quins are slowly sagging backwards from the Premiership-winning season three years ago, and were tonked 39-0 by Globo Gym at the Stoop a few weeks ago. Again, Leinster will see this as an achievable two wins, but one win might be enough in any case so long as they come out ahead on match points over the two legs. Then, before the trip to Thomond, it’s Connacht at home, where there will be a whiff of you-know-what in the air.

Sure, Leinster have started slowly, but let’s keep things in perspective. The strength of the pack means Leinster will contend in every game, and cause celebre Madigan has started the season well. This year is going to be more pragmatic rugby, but rather than ruing O’Connor not being Joe Schmidt, merely winning games is still… winning games. And Leinster’s pack is brilliant. It wasn’t always this way.

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.

All The Rugby

“They didn’t play any rugby” Matt O’Connor, of Connacht, who Leinster had just narrowly beaten, 26th October 2013.

Leaving aside the unedifying nature of the Leinster head coach’s remarks about Connacht and turn that on its head. If Connacht didn’t play any rugby, then Leinster played all the rugby on the night, right? Sheesh – if that was all the rugby Leinster will play, they are in trouble. Saturday seemed to herald reality setting in around the Oar Dee Esh – Leinster are really in transition now, both in terms of personnel and gameplan. And grace of the head coach, but that’s another matter.

We have blogged about this recently, but it seems more real now after two successive home games in which Leinster played desperate rugby against two limited teams (apologies to our Western friends and any freaks who follow us in Castres).

The Scooby Doo ending after the Milky Bar Kid swanned off to Lansdowne Road to be biased in favour of Leinster players (© C. George, Cork) was that Matt O’Connor would come in, hand local favourite Ewan “Ian Madigan” Madeegan the keys to the house and continue to play the intelligent and incisive offloading and running game that Schmidty used to conquer Europe. After all, when he was hired, ‘continuity’ was the keyword bandied around by the bigwigs upstairs.  Sure, results might decline a little, but we’ll still get to the HEC/RCC (delete as per status on the financial-oblivion-o-meter) knock-out stages and the Pro12 playoffs, they said.

Now, they might still do that, but it seems they will be doing it the down and dirty way. There was a lot of pointing at Leicester Tigers try-scoring record and the surprising sight of Oooooooooh Manu Tuilagi eschewing running into someone to find actual space  when O’Connor pitched up in D4 – but the Tigers are the masters of the pragmatic and are fundamentally a team of tough forwards. O’Connor’s Leinster will be using route one as their base, and possibly adding baubles when the appropriate time comes.

And this is rankling a bit with the D4tress faithful [Aside: can one be faithful if not from Munster? Maybe faithful but not brave. Or something. JOKE] who have gotten fat on a diet of spellbinding tries and Europe-conquering under Schmidty. Don’t forget, when Cheika came in with a mandate to toughen up the pack who had been eaten up by the Liginds, there was plenty of discontentment about the grim style he adopted, even while it was acknowledged that his job was to start with the forwards. And the 2008 league win would have been a platform for absolutely nothing had they lost to Munster in *that* game in 2009.

They were rank outsiders for that game for a good reason. They had played a huge amount of dross in Europe that year – a limp defeat in Castres and a dire try-less drudge against Embra in their final game. The reason Leinster had to travel to the Stoop for the quarter-final was that they had qualified as the lowest-ranked group winner, in spite of a perfect start where they were on ten points after two tricky games – and then when they got there, the combination of manic defence, Quins butchery and a minor miracle got them through. The Liginds were a far superior team that got ambushed. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The functional league win and Stoop game have become part of the narrative, but it’s easy to forget how unhappy many Leinster fans were with the rugby being played by Cheika.

It’s easy to sympathise with O’Connor – he has an impossible succession job: his best player has left, his best remaining player is being heavily linked with a move to France, and the best player in Leinster’s (and Ireland’s) history has a maximum of twelve-ish games left in blue should he stay fit. Tough gig by anyone’s standards. But no-one at all expected Leinster to end up playing like this so quickly. Hopefully it’s a passing phase (the first this season in blue – lolzers) but it’s funny how quickly a decline can kick in – 21 months after the Munster Rolls-Royce cruised over the Galactico Ospreys side, they were a rabble being beaten senseless in Toulon and looking way, way over the hill. Leinster fans will hope that, if they do plumb the depths of those results, they at least do it while playing decent rugby. Right now, that doesn’t look a good bet.

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.