The Australian guided Leinster to a successful defence of their Pro12 title in his first year as head coach last term and he takes them to London at the weekend with two wins from their opening pair of European fixtures.
Yet, criticisms of the team’s performances have been consistent this last season-and-a-half, with a lack of penetrative attacking rugby with ball in hand and their last eight Heineken Cup exit to Toulon chief among the prosecuting exhibits.
O’Connor had largely held his tongue on debates over style and substance until now — a few remarks aside — but he turned the tables on the media yesterday after captain Jamie Heaslip had been asked for a second time about the side’s current form.
“Just a question for you blokes,” said O’Connor. “How do you guys categorise form? Is it winning games? Is it scoring tries? We’ve scored the most tries in the league. I’m asking the question. What’s form to you guys? Because you ask about it a lot.”
The Oxford English Dictionary refers to form in this regard as “the state of a sports player or team with regard to their current standard of play”, although the response given to O’Connor encapsulated both performances and results.
It is an argument that could go on forever. Players habitually talk about processes and performances and about how results then take care of themselves, but Leinster’s recent tradition is one that encapsulates silverware and sublime rugby.
The perception has been that O’Connor brought with him a more pragmatic approach to Dublin after five years with Leicester Tigers, the first two as backs coach and the final three as head coach to Richard Cockerill’s Director of Rugby.
“The five seasons I was at Leicester, we scored the most tries in the Premiership, hands down, in four of those years. I want to play with the ball in hand. Our philosophy is finding a competitive advantage against the opposition to win the game. That’s our style of rugby.
“I’m doing the same thing I was doing there,” he added. “It’s about creating a competitive advantage to win games. You’ve got to score tries to win games. We did that at Leicester. We’ve got a Test pack on Sunday. What’s your competitive advantage? That’s the game.”
O’Connor is slightly mistaken, in that Leicester scored more tries in three of those years and finished second in the category the other two, but his point is hardly negated as a result and other matters should be taken into account.
The Australian arrived in Ireland just as Jonathan Sexton was leaving for Paris, for instance, although the head man’s preference for Jimmy Gopperth over Ian Madigan at out-half in the majority of big games has been held in evidence against him.
O’Connor has shown his prickly side to the press before, but all too often it manifested itself in curt responses. The decision to turn the tables on his inquisitors this time resulted in a more open discussion and it painted him in a better light.
He spoke at one point about how the volume of Irish internationals and how the constant chopping and changing of personnel makes a mockery of the idea of one homogenous rugby ‘philosophy’.
Breathtaking rugby isn’t the be all and end all, either.
“Five or six years ago, Leinster were playing a tremendous brand of rugby with Guy Easterby at the helm. Zinging the ball around with a fantastic brand of rugby. What were the press saying then? Ladyboys. Soft. Bladdy, bladdy, blah.”
O’Connor’s comments come on the back of a November series in which Schmidt’s Ireland side claimed three wins from three and that, too, has been followed by a growing chorus of opinion that maybe they need to expand their attacking game as well.
A case of some having their cake and eating it, maybe?
“You can afford to, you see,” said O’Connor. “Because, I can tell you who the first blokes to jump up and down if we start losing games are: I’m looking at most of them. Fact.
“It’s about coming up with a plan for these group of blokes to beat the guys on the other side of the line this week. That’s the end of the game, that’s it. That’s what we do. Did Ireland do it in November? 100%. Are we trying to do that? 100%.”