March 27, 2015
It’s been the norm for Leinster in these last few seasons to go through February and March without their internationals. Shorn of talent and experience Leinster have consistently shown the true depth and quality of their overall squad by coming out of these periods of the season with the vast majority of available points. Looking at the squads put out in February and March of this season those who missed the games would be forgiven for assuming the results would have been close to perfect. Internationals like Douglas, Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney, McFadden and Kirchner have all been available. Even Healy, Cronin, Moore, Reddan and D’Arcy have featured. Add to that experienced guys like Strauss, McCarthy and Dundon and Leinster have had squads far and above those we’ve seen during the 6 Nations in seasons past. Yet it has been the worst return from that period in years that looks set to see Leinster on their way to the highest number of defeats in the league in a single season for over a decade. Not pleasant reading is it?
Sure there has been disruption and many Leinster players have been flitting between Ireland camp and Leinster camp, but the serious issues in performances cannot be so easily explained away. At times Leinster have looked threatening. The Ben Te’o try against Scarlets being a prime example. Yet for every positive passage of play comes several poor passages. Leinster have looked bereft of ideas and bereft of leadership for the most part and the re-introduction of internationals will almost certainly improve matters. But with each and every game now being a must-win that means Leinster need their internationals back today, 6 days after their final game in the 6 Nations. And so Matt O’Connor has, like coaches before him, flagged their lack of availability as a serious issue. Not just for Leinster but the league.
That seems somewhat disingenuous for a number of reasons. For starters it is, as I said, only 6 days since the end of the 6 Nations. It’s very early to be getting players back from an international competition, particularly when there’s a European Quarter-Final on the horizon. Glasgow can name their internationals in the knowledge that they have a rest week next week, something which Leinster do not have. It’s also important to ensure that players are managed properly and are getting the appropriate amounts of rest. So far this season Rob Kearney has played 18 games, missing 2 through injury. Jamie Heaslip has played 18 having missed the Wales game through injury. And Jack McGrath, despite being missing for 2 weeks through injury and 3 weeks through suspension, has played 17 games this season. Leinster have had 23 games to date. The numbers for the international players are actually fairly high given that all will be asked to play in any knock-out games to come as well. In reality internationals are really only missing 6-7 games per season, which isn’t that many.
And when you factor in the benefits to the system from a provincial point of view, which we have seen over the years, it becomes clear that the system actually works well for the provinces and the national side in the longer term. Leinster did well in previous seasons by putting faith in young and developing players. They were empowered to play and produced for their province. Guys like Dave Kearney got their chances thanks to the player welfare programme and have gone on to win Pro12, European and 6 Nations medals in some cases. To ignore those positives would be a huge mistake.
Since our last post on the matter Leinster did see something of an increase in performance. After a very poor performance against Munster where Leinster yet again failed to even register a LBP they got back to winning ways with a decent victory over a weakened Ulster side. This was followed by a TBP win in Cardiff, which while a positive result wasn’t exactly a convincing display. A comprehensive victory over a truly woeful Castres side may have put a sheen on things, but Leinster then went on to play arguably their best 40 minutes of the season against Wasps. It was a hugely positive half of rugby and it looked like Leinster might be starting to turn a corner. Sadly that was undone by a poor second half display that allowed Wasps salvage a draw. In the end Wasps were the ones with the best chances of winning the game and not Leinster. From here it was all downhill again. For the first time ever the Newport Gwent Dragons beat Leinster in Dublin. And the following week Leinster struggled to get the TBP against a Zebre side utterly torn apart with injuries and on a horrendous run of form that saw their coaches resign days before the game. Zebre actually led the game 5-8 at half-time! A dire performance produced a draw away to the Ospreys before Leinster were beaten well by the Scarlets with no LBP again to console.
Leinster are currently on 6 losses, equalling that of the whole 2010-12 season. Anymore and we’d have to go back to the 2006-07 season to find the last time we’ve lost so many games. Heaven forbid we lose 8 before the end of the season as that would be the worst we’ve done in over a decade. At 5th in the table 2 points behind Ospreys it’s time Matt O’Connor’s men turned things around. Failure to do so would leave Leinster outside the top 4 for the first time in 11 years. And the position a side finishes in their league determines their ranking for the following seasons European Champions Cup. The worse Leinster do the harder next season will be as a direct result.
But has it all been bad? Simply put the answer is no. Ben Te’o has looked really sharp and his conversion to Union is coming along very well, far better than that of his former teammate Sam Burgess! Luke Fitzgerald’s form has been outstanding, and when he came back he started doing one thing we’d been crying out for. Straightening the line. Once Fitzy started doing it then others decided to get in on the act. And Leinster at times have looked a lot better for his influence. Hopefully he will continue at 13 in blue despite being seen as a winger for Ireland. With the pending return of Healy, Ruddock and O’Brien Leinster have 3 massive ball carriers to bring back into the fray and this could make a massive difference to their game. So we can fully expect the Leinster we see in the final 2 months of the season to be a much improved team from that of the last few months.
HOW SHOULD LEINSTER PROCEED
We promised the third part of this series would look at how Leinster should proceed looking ahead to next season. With the RWC taking place any decision made needs to be made on the basis that Leinster will be missing a large chunk of internationals for almost half the season. So whoever is in charge is going to need to be able to get the best out of a weakened squad, and will need to trust in and empower some of the younger players to ensure their development. Sadly it would seem that Matt O’Connor is not the man to do that. We’ve consistently seen that he has failed to get the best out of the squad he has available to him and that has never been more true than during the 6 Nations this year. Can Leinster really afford for their September and October to go the way February and March did? And what about the 6 Nations period next year? This season Leinster had 3 months where their form suffered massively and they are now struggling to make the play-offs. If that becomes 4 poor months next year what will that mean? Pressure is firmly on the head coach right now and unless there is a seismic shift in performance can the Leinster branch really afford to keep this coaching team on? More importantly have they been working on a replacements behind the scenes before now. If they haven’t then Leinster fans will need to accept that Matt and his coaches are going nowhere next season. It is simply too late to start the process of finding a replacement at this stage. And if that is the case it could be a tough season next season. It will be lean enough anyway with the internationals away for so long, but without a set-up capable of delivering without those players it will be so much harder.
It is disappointing that we are calling for a coaches head at this point of his tenure. It’s not something we wanted to do, or something we agreed with prior to December. However there is little to suggest that they will provide an environment that will drive Leinster on. Perhaps, if no other coaches are available, Leinster could look to Girvan Dempsey as a caretaker coach given his success with the As. Possibly with a view to bringing Jackman back from France (although he is contracted to 2017). Whoever they look to will have a tough job next season but they may inject some energy and enthusiasm into proceedings as well. It’s time for a change though either way.