While it had initially looked like Matt O’Connor would see out the final year of his contract with Leinster, yesterday’s news of his departure wasn’t all that surprising.
It might have come as a shock to some of the Leinster players but if you’re outside the circle, it’s easy to see their performances and results haven’t been anything like we’d expect of them.
The change in style between O’Connor and Schmidt was always going to be a challenge for the squad, but you have to wonder how aware the players are that standards have slipped. We’ve all been guilty of that - you’re in your own bubble for so long, you look at things differently when you’re involved in something directly.
In these instances, you look for commanding figures in the squad who will voice some strong opinions. Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien all fall into that category, but they have a lot of involvement with Ireland and need to focus on what’s going on in two camps. Who is speaking up when they’re not around? In my time, the two players who really drove things on in Leinster were Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings, and then Shane Horgan took on that role when he was dropped by Ireland.
You had three really strong characters there, but I struggle to see who might be doing that from outside the international team. It helps explain their poor results during the Six Nations, which is something Joe Schmidt alluded to when O’Connor spoke out about his lack of access to his players.
His point is legitimate but no more so than any of his predecessors - nothing has changed in Irish rugby in the past 15 years in terms of how the system runs. The priority is always the national team, but that hasn’t prevented the provinces from doing well. In previous campaigns, Leinster were far more successful during the Six Nations period than they were this year, which was the big issue this time.
Leinster’s travails can’t all be blamed on O’Connor. His predecessors Schmidt and Michael Cheika encouraged a culture that wasn’t always apparent in Leinster - one of work-rate, a good attitude, discipline and ruthlessness. However, the retirements and departures of key players and leaders from that time - Brian O’Driscoll, Johnny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Leo Cullen, Brad Thorn and Nathan Hines - has left them, unsurprisingly, vulnerable to change. The professional game doesn’t really accept change, and neither do supporters who have grown accustomed to success.
Schmidt was always going to be a hard act to follow too, although it took his success with the national team for the scale of the job to be realised. Doing what he had at club level was one thing, but getting his blueprint to work at international level further emphasises Schmidt’s coaching credentials.
The ability to extract the maximum level of performance from some average players with Ireland has been one of Schmidt’s biggest strengths. The fact that six of the players left out of France’s 30-man World Cup squad this week would all make the Irish panel highlights that.
The New Zealander is, of course, famous for his detail and it’s here where Leinster have suffered since his departure. O’Connor is partly culpable but the players must accept responsibility too. The Treviso game a couple of weeks ago, when Leinster struggled to victory scoring only 10 points, was a snapshot of their season. Yes, the conditions were poor that night but in previous years they’d have put 40 points on Treviso, irrespective of wet ball.
For all that, it is unusual in Irish rugby for a coach to part ways with a province before his contract is up. But that’s the way things are going in the game generally. We are a bit more sensitive about this in Ireland but in the Top 14, under-performance means getting the chop. Clubs are owned by successful businessmen, who see it as a simple business decision; it’s like a merry-go-round for coaches here, you get off one team then get on another.
There won’t be any shortage of high-calibre coaches to replace O’Connor. Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie are already being spoken of, and while some will say this is a good opportunity for an indigenous coach to follow in Anthony Foley or Neil Doak’s footsteps, players will want the best guy, irrespective of his nationality.
Foley and Doak both have a big weekend coming up as they look to prove they can guide teams to victory at the business end of the campaign. I thought it was a smart move by Ulster to rest 12 players against Glasgow last weekend. Otherwise, it could potentially have been four massive games on the trot for them, starting with Munster at home a fortnight ago and ending with the Pro12 final, which would have been too much to ask of the players.
Obviously, things would have been different if they’d beaten Munster and had a home semi-final up for grabs. Or if - like Munster, who put 50 points on the Dragons - they’d had a softer game in the middle of that run.
Some have wondered whether they’ve handed momentum and a psychological advantage to a Glasgow side that had been struggling for form themselves, but this is a one-off game. Glasgow won’t even have analysed last weekend’s game, such was the difference in personnel, and instead will be looking for clues from Ulster’s clash with Munster.
Both are looking to establish themselves as a coming force in European rugby, but Glasgow will win. They’ve been building for a long time for this and are at a crossroads; they lost last year’s final and have had no tangible success in Europe bar a few scalps. If they want to be taken seriously, they need to win this one - they will lose a lot of credibility otherwise.
Munster take on the Ospreys in Limerick in the other semi-final. Winning this tournament would speak volumes for where they’ve got back to after the dip over the past few years. The league has changed from when I played, it’s more meaningful now - before it was seen as a third-tier competition beyond Test and European rugby, but now it has a life of its own, is easy to get motivated for and is worth going after.
Munster are in a good place mentally and their confidence is high, but the key will be how they measure up at 10, 12 and 13. In Webb and Biggar, Ospreys have an advantage in their international class half-back pairing, but I still fancy the hosts to set up a final showdown with Glasgow.
Foley and Doak have a big weekend as they look to prove they can guide teams to victory at the business end of the campaign
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