October 17, 2014
Going into last weekend Leinster were 2 from 5 this season and questions were being raised regarding the position of head coach Matt O'Connor. It has certainly been a very disappointing start to the season and there are without doubt issues that need to be addressed. But to identify whether the calls for the head coach to be removed are premature or not we must first examine what has happened during his tenure as well as what he is trying to do.
THE START OF THE O'CONNOR ERA
When Matt O'Connor joined Leinster he did so without the same level of notice that all parties would have liked. Joe Schmidt had taken the Ireland job, but had already signed a number of players for the 2013/14 season, namely Gopperth and Kirchner. Sexton had moved to France and Nacewa had retired from rugby while both Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll were at the end of their careers. These players are as close to irreplaceable as you can get. O'Connor wasn't able to recruit the kind of players he wanted and had to get used to the IRFUs Player Welfare system that limits Irish squad members game time. His first season at Leinster was always going to be a tricky one with high expectations from the fans but a massively reduced ability to deliver on those in a new and quite different environment. To make matters worse Leinster had an even larger contingent with the Ireland squad than ever before. So the Leinster head coach had less talent at his disposal, less access to his top players and less control over the squad make-up than Joe ever had. That's not exactly an ideal start for a new coach in a new club.
The early part of Leinster's 2012/13 season was anything but consistent. An opening victory over a poor Scarlets side in Llanelli and 2 solid performances against the Ospreys were contrasted by poor performances against Glasgow, Munster, Castres and Connacht. In the latter 2 games the opposition each conceded 2 yellow cards which helped Leinster to victory. Against Connacht in the RDS the Westerners led for over 75 minutes before succumbing to a Leinster pack while both Ronan Loughney and Kieran Marmion were in the bin. With as many as 17 players in the Irish camp in November Leinster eeked out 2 victories on the road against Dragons and Treviso before again getting a good win over a poor Scarlets side in the RDS. Despite the rocky start to the season they were second in the league and top of the pool in the Heineken Cup. For whatever misgivings fans had about the way in which Leinster were getting there, they were still in a very good place after the first 3 months of the season.
BIG GAMES AND BIG EXPECTATIONS
Then in Round 3 of the Heineken Cup, away to Northampton Saints, Leinster produced what would have been considered a vintage Leinster performance. One full of pace, accuracy, skill and a clinical edge. It ended in a 6 try rout of the English side and served as a statement to other contenders that Leinster were still in the running. Luke Fitzgerald got in for a hat-trick and Brian O'Driscoll was on hand to put in some lovely touches, particularly that amazing through the legs pass to Kearney for Luke's second. It was a pure joy to watch. Unfortunately the following week Leinster were beaten out the gates of the Aviva by a Northampton side who were simply better in nearly every aspect of the game. This was a punch to the gut for Leinster and their fans and the province wouldn't put in another performances like the one in Franklin's Gardens until the Pro12 final in May, more than 5 months later.
In the Heineken Cup Leinster rebounded with an away win against Castres and a TBP victory over Ospreys at home. The win in Castres stood out as Leinster went 14-0 down in the opening quarter but managed to force their way back into the game with a brace of tries from Jimmy Gopperth. However Castres' interest in the contest waned in the second half as they were already out and the Top14 was their now primary focus. The Ospreys game was a good win, but it needs to be noted that it was against 14 men for 60 minutes and was another error strewn performance. As it turned out the result against Northampton in the Aviva was ultimately the difference between a home quarter final or an away one. And of all the sides to be away to Leinster drew Toulon. Maybe the Leinster side of 2012 could have won that game, but not the one of 2014. The 6-6 scoreline at half-time kept hope alive, but Toulon hit hard early in the second half and Leinster could find no way back. This loss generated a lot of criticism and drew a lot of heat on the coaching set-up in Leinster. However it is simply unfair to expect a Leinster side missing Sexton and Nacewa (as well as Leo Cullen from the starting line-up) along with the injured Sean O'Brien and Luke Fitzgerald to be able to come away from Stade Félix Mayol with the win. Whatever about some of the other performances, criticism over this loss was seriously misplaced.
THE BREAD AND BUTTER
In the league however, when Leinster did win, they seemed to scrape by in games that should have been foregone conclusions. Being beaten 11-6 away to a very poor Edinburgh side the week after the loss to Northampton was a real low point in the season. However even against Zebre at home in February, where a TBP should be an absolute guarantee, they struggled desperately to achieve it. The fourth try was secured, but only in the last minute of the game. Against the Ospreys in Swansea we saw almost an exact replica of the performance in Edinburgh; a game that Leinster should have won but due to a woeful performance did not. They did manage to beat Edinburgh in Dublin in May, but again the performance was very poor. The Pro12 final was a huge turnaround however. They made Glasgow, probably the form team in the league for a season and a half at that point, look pretty average. They won comprehensively and in the manner we would have expected from Leinster. It gave the team something to build from and the fans something to look forward to for the following season.
Sadly this season has started as badly, if not worse, than last. Very poor performances away to Glasgow and Connacht burst any kind of bubble that the Pro12 final may have created. The wins over Scarlets and Cardiff were somewhat hollow as Scarlets were incredibly poor and we nearly handed the game back to Cardiff on a silver platter. And then we were beaten off the park by Munster in a game very reminiscent of the Saints game in the same venue in December. Again it was the Munster game that drew the majority of the reaction in the same way the Toulon game did last season. But given the injuries Leinster had there is surely no way they could have been expected to win that game? Personally I don't think so anyway. However they had a minimum of a 1 man advantage for the last 22 minutes of the game. In that time they only managed to reduce the deficit on the scoreboard by 8 points, which was not enough for even the LBP. Even with the injuries they should have done better than that in the final quarter.
I didn't see the game in Italy on Saturday, but all accounts I did hear were that Leinster's first half performance was pretty dire and while they were improved in the second half it still was anything but convincing. Zebre went down to 14 men for 10 minutes in the first half and yet it was the home side that scored during that time and not Leinster. That is not the kind of thing that you want to see or hear the week before the start of the European Cup. But where does the fault lie for that? Is it with the players or the coaches? Have we flattered to deceive or shown real glimpses of our true potential?
ISSUES AND QUESTION MARKS
Early on last season O'Connor was able to recruit an outside back that he wanted; Lote Tuquiri. Tuquiri had a very impressive resume in both rugby codes, but was getting on somewhat at 34. He was signed on a short-term 3 month contract, but sadly spent a good deal of that time injured. He did start the Munster game in Thomond at 13 ahead of Brendan Macken but for the vast majority of the game saw no ball what-so-ever. He was continually skipped out when going to the back line and eventually Munster realised they didn't need to defend against him as Leinster weren't going to utilise him. Ironically this led to an eye catching break in the middle of the park when Tuquiri seemed to get the ball by mistake and found himself in some space. He made a second break late on in the game down the wing off turnover ball but pulled his hamstring in the process. But what was worrying about that game was that fact that he wasn't being brought into it by his team-mates. If that was planned then why was he selected? If not, then were the players around him not confident enough in him and what the coaches were telling them to do? The poor performances early in the season were nothing new at Leinster, so this was the first thing that raised an eyebrow.
Then once Tuquiri's contract was up O'Connor went looking for it to be extended. The IRFU refused to approve that, and understandably so. Quite why O'Connor pushed for it (and pushed hard apparently) I don't quite know, but if it was to fill a void at 13 that was very much kicking the can down the road. A 34 year-old player who spends as much time on the treatment table as the pitch was never going to replace O'Driscoll long term. And any time he spent in the 13 jersey was time someone else wasn't. Although it's been fairly obvious that O'Connor doesn't rate Macken and there really wasn't anyone else in the running at that point to take over from O'Driscoll.
Other selection issues have raised their heads since the start of last season though. The situation at 10 with Gopperth and Madigan got plenty of attention, but there wasn't much between them for most of the season. A lot of that criticism seemed unfair as Madigan never really showed the sort of form that would have put him ahead of Gopperth. However the decision to select Gopperth for the Toulon game was hugely questionable. Gopperth had played a mere 8 minutes of rugby in the previous 5 or 6 weeks so to start him in Leinster's biggest game of the season seemed counter intuitive. If he was going to start Gopperth then he should have done so against Munster the week before, or at least given him 20-30 minutes off the bench. Instead Madigan played the full 80 and Gopperth went into the HEC semi-final cold. That was massively unfair on both players and another decision I still can't quite get my head around. Game time was split pretty evenly between the two for the season, but injuries so far this season have meant that Gopperth has played more at 10. Questions remain whether either out-half can implement the game the O'Connor is looking to play, and conversely whether O'Connor can adapt his game to suit his resources.
We also had the situation where players like Darren Hudson and Luke McGrath were getting no real exposure at senior level. Darragh Fanning was preferred over Hudson, to the point where the youngster left Leinster for Bristol, and both Reddan and Boss were preferred over McGrath. Even when Reddan was injured and Boss was going through some poor form (as he currently is again) O'Connor was very reluctant to utilise young Luke McGrath. After speaking openly about his desire to work with Leinster's "established and burgeoning talent from the renowned Leinster Academy" it is easy to be disappointed by the manner in which he has brought these Academy players through, or hasn't in some cases.
Other issues like O'Connors focus on defense (and how effective it has been), the poor basic skills on show for much for last season, the apparent lack of attacking structure and Leinster's approach to the breakdown will be dealt with in the next part of the series. This will focus on how Leinster played the game and how effectively they did so.
IS IT REALLY ALL BAD?
But it really isn't all bad. There have definitely been positives too. Obviously Leinster won the league last season after all, and they did so having topped the table as well. In the Heineken Cup they topped a pool that many considered to be a very, very tough pool. Ospreys have always been Leinster's bogey team, Castres were Top 14 champions and Northampton were the Aviva Premiership runners-up. It's not like there was an Italian team in there or anything. Losing to Toulon, the reigning and eventual champions, away from home is not exactly a damning loss. And so the end results of all of Leinster's efforts were still quite good despite misgivings over performances. Games like Northampton away or Glasgow in the Pro12 final showed how good Leinster could be if they hit top gear and that the talent is most certainly still there. This seasons performances are almost impossible to gauge at this point given the utterly bizarre and incredibly frustrating injury crisis affecting the club. One that seems to get worse by the week. So while there might not be too many positives so far, it's also impossible to be overly critical in the face of so many missing players.
And for all the selection issues and development issues I spoke of earlier there have been players that come on a good deal and some who have been brought into the side for the first time. Martin Moore has gone from Academy player to 6 Nations medal winner over the course of a single season. Jack McGrath has come on to the point that he too was part of that winning Irish side. Tadhg Furlong is making great inroads this season, and though it's taken injuries both Ed and Bryan Byrne have taken to the senior game very well. Toner, who has always benefited from consistent game time, has finally started to get the recognition that he deserves and Rhys Ruddock has become an absolutely huge player for Leinster. Just look at the try he scored against Cardiff a few weeks ago, or the turnover he won against Italy in the build up to Sean Cronin's try that day. In the backs there has been less development, but Noel Reid stands out as a big one. He had some senior game time under his belt in previous seasons but was very green and it showed. But last season he showed that he is maturing just nicely and was rewarded with an Ireland cap in Argentina.
It would also be remiss to leave out Darragh Fanning and Mick McGrath. Two guys who did not come through the Academy but were picked up none-the-less. Fanning isn't anything flashy, but he is a very hard worker and can be seen hitting rucks all over the park regularly. He may not be the guy you'd look to for the bigger games but he has proven to be very solid for Leinster since the start of last season. Mick McGrath has come in from Clontarf where he was a prolific try scorer in their AIL title win last season. He still looks inexperienced at this level in some ways, but in others he looks made for it. Fast, strong and with a real eye for the line he could prove a valuable asset during those international windows. It could be very easy to dismiss these guys, or not bother looking at them in the first place, but they have turned out to be handy guys to have when the injuries build up!
And let's not forget the best news of all. Our favourite (non-retired) son Jonathan Sexton has been signed for next season on a 4 year deal. Now you could say that this was an IRFU driven signing, but regardless of how much input Leinster and Matt O'Connor did or didn't have into it we still need to flag it a a good news story.
BETWEEN THE JIGS AND THE REELS
So where does that leave us? Overall the history books will show the 2013/14 season as a fairly successful one. Winning the league and getting to the knock-outs of the HEC are all that they will record. But Leinster fans cannot shake the frustrations over the performances during that season. So far this season Leinster can't possibly be considered to be competitive with the injury crisis currently hitting the province. And again fans can't escape the disappointment with the performances despite that. And you could feel some sympathy for that position when you look at performances such as the one away to Connacht. It's not a particularly clear cut situation at all, and certainly not one that you can use to justify sacking a coach mid-contract. Examining the performances themselves and the way in which Leinster go about their jobs may give us some further insights. In the next part of our review we will take a look under the hood at what Leinster are doing, what has changed since September last year, and where things have been going right or wrong. In the meantime we have European Rugby kicking off again this weekend. It will be interesting to see if this new format is any better or worse than the old Heineken Cup, or if things have really changed at all.