Official notice of Matt O’Connor’s exit from Leinster landed shortly after 10am yesterday, but the writing had been on the wall for the Australian head coach for a month.
Four weeks to the day beforehand, rugby journalists had been invited to the Aviva Stadium with Joe Schmidt and IRFU Performance Director David Nucifora to talk specifically about issues regarding player welfare.
O’Connor had been vocal about the matter for some months, pointing to the regular exodus of Leinster players to national camp and suggesting that there was a need to have the provincial and national bigwigs sit down for a renegotiation.
The retort from Schmidt and Nucifora was measured and yet, at the same time, devastating. The core of their retort was simple: enough with the excuses, do a better job.
That very public message, allied to the timing of its delivery a day before a make-or-break Guinness Pro12 trip to Belfast to face Ulster, left O’Connor isolated and exposed.
By then, Leinster were out of Europe and all but mathematically evicted from Pro12 play-off contention. What happened yesterday was merely paperwork, even if it was ultimately Leinster’s Professional Games Board that signed the release.
Forget talk of ‘mutual consent’. This effectively marks the third premature end of contract for a provincial head coach in just under a year, following on from the departures of Rob Penney and Mark Anscombe from Munster and Ulster respectively.
Rugby is now a brutal business and the exits of O’Connor, Anscombe and Penney have sent out an increasingly stark warning to any coaches, foreign or domestic, eyeing up a job in this country. The message is simple: deliver quickly or else.
The rugby world is a small one and it remains to be seen what effect this recent trend to dispense with coaches with such alacrity has on the receipt of CVs, because either the provinces have been guilty of making poor choices or they haven’t given their men enough time.
Either answer hardly inspires confidence. Margins for error have unquestionably shrunk and Leinster clearly feel they can ill afford another season of drift under a coach in whom their faith had been compromised after two seasons that disappointed, for various reasons.
Leinster season ticket sales have reportedly crept above the 10,000-mark, but with a new main grandstand and capacity bump due in 2017, the province has given itself two years to return the ship to an even keel before they go to the marketplace with improved and more expensive packages for punters.
The next man in will, therefore, take over at what will be a crucial juncture in the province’s history, though he will surely be thankful that the shadow cast by Schmidt is not nearly as long as it was for O’Connor on his arrival.
This, after all, is a coach who never had the services of Jonathan Sexton or Isa Nacewa. Leo Cullen served him only as a forwards coach — and a callow one at that — while Brian O’Driscoll retired last summer after a season when Ireland saw the best of him.
Injuries didn’t help. Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien, two world-class players and destructive ball carriers, missed most of this season while the constricted nature of the European season worked against O’Connor in the wake of the Six Nations.
Being drawn away to Toulon in the knockout stages both seasons didn’t exactly help, but the real damage was done by a level of performance that reached a nadir in recent weeks with the collapse away to the Dragons and the 10-0 grind of a win at home to Treviso.
Leinster produced displays of true class last season away to Northampton in the Heineken Cup and at home against Glasgow in the final of the Pro12, but there was never a suggestion that the ‘domestic’ title could be retained this time around.
Their bravura attacking displays disappeared — this at a time when the club website was advertising for upcoming summer camps with the tagline: ‘play the Leinster way’ — while a top-class defence eroded away to porousness time and again.
There was no clear sense of a Matt O’Connor game-plan even after two years, but perhaps most damning of all was the alarming nosedive in the execution of basic skills, which had been worked on assiduously by Schmidt from the first day he arrived in Dublin.
The fact is that, for all the possible excuses mentioned above, O’Connor inherited a slick machine driven by a dressing room packed full of multiple Heineken Cup and Grand Slam winners, supported by the best academy on these islands. He should have done better with a hand like that.
The irony is that O’Connor was a safer pair of hands on paper than the two men who preceded him, Michael Cheika and Schmidt. All of which goes to show that there are no certainties on the managerial merry-go-rounds.
Let the lottery begin. Again.
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