No Backs Please, We’re Leinster

Leinster have had an extremely poor league season by their standards, but are still in with a shout in the European Cup. It's a moment of truth, but can the province return to former standards and former glories, or will their continue to chart a declining course?

Leinster have had an extremely poor league season by their standards, but are still in with a shout in the European Cup. It’s a moment of truth, but there’s more scope for disillusionment that there is for restorative belief. Can the province return to former standards and former glories, or will they continue to chart a declining course?

Thus far this season, Leinster have played 19 league matches and only won 9 of them: a .47 winning percentage. That’s quite easily their worst record in a decade.

It’s been a precipitous decline. The team have won just one of their last six league games, and have been beaten home and away by the ninth placed Newport Gwent Dragons in that period.

It’s difficult to think of a game this season [other than that against an already eliminated and wholly uninterested Castres at home in the penultimate round of the European Champions Cup group stages] where the province have looked coherent, technically sharp and hungry for even an hour, never mind eighty minutes.

The Mole is not blind to issues with injury, retirement, international call-ups and turnover of staff, but nor have I my short sights set on perfection and extravagance; I’m just looking for a competent coaching job – a coaching job commensurate with the resources afforded to the coach. Leinster certainly have the players to be in the top two or three teams in the league; they’ve been in that position every year for the last decade.

It’s unrealistic to say that your win-loss record in the league is the true barometer of an Irish province: after all, European competition has always been the sharper focus and the bigger prize. However, it’s ridiculous to ignore league form on the basis that you’ve qualified for a knock-out place in a cup competition. If you’re flying high in the league and competing at the top end of Europe, you’re a team that everybody respects, like Leinster were in 2011-12. If you’re limping along in the league and have somehow made it to the knockouts in the cup, you’re a curiosity, like Edinburgh were that same season. That’s not to suggest that Leinster have fallen to Edinburgh’s level [nor anywhere near it], but the performances and results in the league are both an indictment of O’Connor as a coach and manager and a real concern to Leinster supporters. A good cup campaign can cover a litany of league sins, but it’s going to take a hell of a cup run to compensate for a team who have contested [all] five league finals in a row finishing out of the Pro12 play-off positions.

The Wagging Finger

There has been no shortage of people – journalists, commentators, former or current players – lining up to tell Leinster fans that they are, or have been, “spoilt”.  Be it Tony WardBrent PopeSean O’Brien, or Brian O’Driscoll, not to mention the assembled hacks at the two major national papers, it’s a message that has been delivered as a criticism.

While it had some traction last season, with some fans bickering amongst themselves over the merits of ‘winning ugly’, this season those rebukes have found a less receptive audience. The ugly wins have turned to ugly losses, and the coaching staff don’t have many silver linings to point to in order to offset the obvious clouds: results have been poor, performances worse and the selection policy backward.

Targets And Limits

A significant part of the coach’s responsibility is setting limits as well as targets; targets are what you strive for, limits are the standards that you must maintain at a minimum.

To my mind, so many of Leinster’s problems under O’Connor are down to what they do when they have the ball: how rarely they run on to the ball flat out, how much tolerance the players allow themselves in terms of timing, how predictable and unthreatening their lines of running and support are etc. Targets are still very high, given that the squad is loaded with test players and winners’ medals, but limits have dropped to a low standard.

Leinster are a majority-possession team, but all too frequently look laboured, even clueless, in attack. It reminds The Mole an awful lot of the second half of Declan Kidney’s term as Irish head coach … this bizarre reliance on passing to a stationary [or almost stationary] forward five metres away from a ruck.

Jamie Heaslip gets stuffed by Connacht's Bundee Aki.

Jamie Heaslip gets stuffed by Connacht’s Bundee Aki. O’Connor’s heavy reliance on one-out runners has seen Leinster play a very predictable brand of rugby this season. There are always going to be occasions when you are forced to deal with slow ball, but a single one-out trotter is rarely the solution to the problem. If you’ve already got slow ball, why not go one-out with a leech to get him past the first tackler, or go two out with a simple pass that changes the point of attack, or go one-out and then back inside to a blindside winger coming in at pace, with the original forward there to win the ruck or act as a leech if the ball carrier stays on his feet? Or do a scrum-half drag to that forward coming on to the ball at pace, or with a dummy to him and the ball left behind for [again] the blindside winger?

‘Going through the phases’ for the sake of recording a high number of consecutive possessions is practically pointless. Bob Dwyer used to write a very good occasional column for Green & Gold Rugby, and in one of them he made the point that each phase should ask a searching question of the defense. Not necessarily that each phase should ask a different question [for example, consecutive pick-and-goes can be very effective while hammering away at a weak point and asking the same question of the defense], but that every play should be hard to defend.

A related problem is Leinster’s uber-conservative approach to passing/off-loading out of contact, and in general their passing in constrained conditions. They’re currently so risk-averse that opposition teams don’t have to worry about the ball that much … they know that if they tackle the man in possession, he’ll go to deck, and they can concentrate on slowing the ruck.

This store’s-own vanilla brand of stationary carriers, lack of handling in contact and touchline drift in the backline is the story of Leinster’s season with ball in hand, and is very much the responsibility of the attack coach, i.e. O’Connor.

The All Seeing Eye And Other Masonry Extravagances

One advantage of being at the game rather than watching it on television is you can choose what you’re looking at; you don’t have to follow the director’s cut. You can go from following the ball to looking at a much wider vista literally without blinking an eye.

It’s not really apparent from television how often in recent times Leinster have looked in disarray off the ball, or how frequently they have opted to attack the wrong side off rucks. Obviously everybody gets the chance to see the cornucopia of knock-ons, drops, dud passes etc. that have been served up in recent months, but the lack of coherence off the ball is just as frustrating once you’re aware of it.

Dippy [pretending he's about to pass].

The Dominic Ryan/any scrum-half abusive relationship of slow delivery-pass at a stationary player-trundle into contact has not quite been painful to watch, but it sure has been irritating. You’re very rarely going to manufacture anything off a stationary single player one-out from the ruck, so why rely on it so heavily? Why use it as the foundation of your performance?

“What Do They Actually Do In Training Every Day?”

It might come across as presumptuous and/or particularly obnoxious, but the above is a refrain that has been startlingly commonplace amongst Leinster fans in the aftermath of one of many lacklustre performances.

That there are so many moments of disjunction owes something to the revolving door between Leinster and Irish training camps, but it has become an over-used excuse from the coaching staff. Any team will obviously miss game-breakers. The stamp of a quality test player is the ability to do things exceptionally well. However, when you look at Leinster this year, there are far too many examples of players not doing things plain well: lacklustre mauling, poor lineout work, abject tackling, an inability to create or execute mis-matches, kack-handed passing etc.

In The Mole’s view, the two most important signifiers of a well-coached and committed team are running on to the ball at pace and making your tackles. The ability to do these two things consistently well are non-negotiables for any successful outfit.

Well-coached teams without many stars can still produce accurate, convincing and winning performances: viz. the Waikato Chiefs, Exeter Chiefs, Glasgow, and the Ospreys. Good coaching and good morale can turn above average players into a strong collective.

There’s No Nice Way To Say This …

A couple of young players deemed surplus to requirements in Leinster have thrived in Connacht under Pat Lam. John Cooney at scrumhalf and Quinn Roux in the second row have both impressed out west, and resultingly extended their respective stays in Galway. On the other hand, those who kept O’Connor’s favour, namely Tom Denton, Ben Marshall and [to an extent] Luke McGrath, have all struggled to achieve basic standards on the rare occasions of their selection.

There’s no good way to look at this for O’Connor: either he has a bogey eye for talent and chose to ship off the wrong guys, or he can’t bring out the potential of hand-picked players.

Tadhg Furlong celebrates a try in European competition.

Tadhg Furlong celebrates a try in European competition. The big tighthead has been earmarked as a future international since impressing for the Irish U20s as an 18 year old in the 2011 JWC and, despite some injuries during his academy stint, has promptly made each step up through the ranks with ease. It’s an easy argument to make that his ability was always going to see him through, but is it fair to the coaching staff who have overseen his progression?

No Backs Please, We’re Leinster 

A couple of young forwards have unquestionably had breakthrough seasons: Tadhg Furlong [b. Nov 1992] has made 23 [7+16] appearances in the season to date and earned a call up to the Irish squad for the last couple of games of the Six Nations, while Jack Conan [b. Jun 1992] has played in 20 games [13+7] and debuted at No8 for the irish Wolfhounds against the England Saxons in late January. Both youngsters have seen significant gametime in European competition, and their respective first seasons in the senior squad can only be marked down as successes. While Conan stole the plaudits earlier in the season, his standard of play over the last couple of months has dropped somewhat and he has fallen into predictable habits. Against the Dragons in the RDS, he had the ball 18 times: he passed it just once, and didn’t manage any offloads. Run into contact, go to deck, recycle. Is that what you see Kieran Read or Sergio Parisse doing? They’re the best No8s in the world, and they hardly ever do that. So why do it?

Furlong is finishing the stronger of the two and looks in good shape to challenge for a spot on the RWC15 panel. We predicted thirty-odd months ago that he’d be Ireland’s starting tighthead for the forthcoming tournament, but didn’t bank on the emergence of Marty Moore in the interim, nor Mike Ross’ surprising longevity.

A little further down the food chain, academy players Josh van der Flier [2+3] and Brian Byrne [1+7] have also made a significant positive impression, and while Dan Leavy and Ed Byrne have had serious injury problems mar the season, when they’ve been available for selection they have made it into matchday squads and on to the pitch; even a couple of 20 year old tight five forwards, Peter Dooley and Ross Molony, have made their Pro12 debuts [against Edinburgh and Zebre respectively]. Bar another second row to partner Molony, that’s seven-eighths of a full pack there with an average age of exactly 21 at the time of writing.

In contrast, the rate of progress and promotion for young backs has been stiflingly slow.

There are currently 23 youngsters listed on the academy’s books, 13 backs and 10 forwards; seven of them have seen gametime in the Pro12 this year. Of that seven, only one – Steve Crosbie – is a back.

It doesn’t look any better if you’re a young back in the senior squad. While their direct contemporaries in the forwards are seeing gametime and opportunities, neither Sam Coghlan Murray [b.1992] nor Collie O’Shea [b.1991] have featured in a single matchday squad this season. O’Shea has had a debilitating run of injuries throughout his time at Leinster, and has had little opportunity to show his talents since making his Pro12 debut way back in the 2011-12 season as a first year academy player under Joe Schmidt. With so many centres in the academy, his injury history, and his lack of a stand-out quality, it’s difficult to see a future for him in blue.

On the other hand, Coghlan Murray has been fit, firing and scoring tries for both UCD and Leinster ‘A’: six in eight appearances in the British and Irish Cup [including a hat-trick against Plymouth Albion in Donnybrook] and a further six in the UBL.

That's right lad, keep the green bib on.

That’s right lad, keep the green bib on … for the entire season.

His staccato footspeed and surprisingly percussive fend bring a few amps of excitement in their own right, and there’s certainly a need for excitement amongst a fanbase growing steadily more disillusioned with the direction the team are heading. His two starts in the Pro12 last season were convincing; it’s difficult and even obtuse to view his continued lack of selection as a snub.

We have referred in the past to Toulouse’s model for sourcing their players: one third from their Espoirs, one third from other French teams, and one third from abroad. Obviously this  system can’t be replicated by the Irish provinces because of the limits put on non-Irish qualified players in squads, so there’s obviously far more reliance on homegrown players. No province can afford to ignore a particular player pathway – be it foreign players qualified by ancestry, academy-produced players plying their trade in other leagues, or the amateur game.

There’s certainly value to be had in the AIL/UBL; real Leinster aficionados recognise Aaron Dundon’s worth as a Teutonically reliable emergency-chute hooker. On the other hand, it’s still an amateur league for amateur players, and not all of them are rough diamonds. If you can raid the AIL/UBL to fill a specific positional need, then you’ve done exceptionally well; if you’re stocking a team with amateur journeymen, you’re making a rod for your own back.

Darragh Fanning had a strong first half of the season and did himself proud, but his massive pre-Christmas gametime numbers came at the expense of any exposure for Coghlan-Murray, Cian Kelleher or Adam Byrne. Kelleher’s astounding tally of nine tries in eight British & Irish Cup games deserved reward, and it seems extremely likely that he would have been backed and given a Pro12 chance by either of the previous two Leinster coaches.

Tom Farrell puts in a big fend on Adam Craig of Ballynahinch on the back pitch at Lansdowne. He bagged a pair of tries on the day and has scored in every one of Lansdowne's last five UBL games. [Photo Credit: Tomás Greally/Sportsfile]

Tom Farrell puts in a big fend on Adam Craig of Ballynahinch on the back pitch at Lansdowne. The former Ireland U20 centre bagged a try on the day and has scored in every one of Lansdowne’s last six UBL games, doubling up in their recent home win over Cork Constitution. [Photo Credit: Tomás Greally/Sportsfile]

The ability and sharpness of execution that the academy youngsters bring when they come on can be viewed as both encouraging and dismaying. It shows that they’re learning good habits from somewhere in the Leinster system – and bear in mind that the academy train with the senior team more than under any coach previously – but it also highlights how much the habits of some senior players have regressed.

Brendan Macken lines out in the famous cherry and white of Gloucester Rugby. Over the course of his time at Leinster, he's been afforded every opportunity to shine but hasn't done enough to convince. Gametime has been scarce in recent months, and he clearly doesn't have the confidence of the current coaching set-up, so a move away is in the best interests of all parties.

Brendan Macken lines out in the famous cherry and white of Gloucester Rugby. Over the course of his time at Leinster, he’s been afforded every opportunity to shine but hasn’t done enough to convince. Gametime has been scarce in recent months, and he clearly doesn’t have the confidence of the current coaching set-up, so a move away is in the best interests of all parties. It closes the doors for now on a career with his home province, but at 23 years old, a move out of his comfort zone might be exactly what he needs to shake his slump.

Wise Up Or Ship Out 

The announcement that a loan move to Gloucester had been engineered for Brendan Macken ended an uncomfortable period for those Leinster fans who had been aware of the decline in the Blackrock centre’s stock since the start of the season. Nobody wanted to see a 23 year old with 46 Leinster appearances behind him have to drop down a level and try and kickstart his career in the RFU Championship as a semi-pro. Gloucester are a proud team with a strong heritage, a rich coterie of quick young backs and a recently-arrived Irish director of rugby in David Humphries who is familiar with Macken from provincial competition, so there’s every indication that it’s as good a landing spot as the player could have hoped for.

While it’s extremely difficult to predict which players are going to hit form and experience a breakout season [who would have thought Noel Reid would bag seven tries in the 2013-14 regular season and make his full test debut for Ireland?], Macken’s glacial rate of progression as a professional is one of those small mysteries that tend to crop up every now and again if you follow a team for any extended period of time. In short, he should be better than he is.

He left Blackrock College with a stellar reputation, but every step since has been difficult, and he has never looked at ease when introduced at a higher level. His Irish U20s career was lacklustre; his Pro12 career lacks a highlight game despite 44 appearances for Leinster in the league; his performances in the European games in which he has played have been entirely unremarkable; and his Emerging Ireland performances over the last two summer tours rarely better than scrappy.

The only level Macken has really excelled at since leaving school has been in the British and Irish Cup. He has played in an edition of the competition every year since leaving school – even turning out for a couple of appearances this season – and his scoring rate of 15 tries in 22 games often made one wonder what he was still doing there. Despite being given dozens of chances though, he was never able to prove that he was good enough to thrive in the Pro12. It’s a curious limbo in which to find oneself. While team-mates Jack McGrath and Dave Kearney were playing B&I Cup rugby in January 2013 and test-match rugby in November of the same year, Macken just couldn’t make the step up.

Bren Macken British & Irish Cup record over the years [click to embiggen]: the Blackrock College alumnus found the competition a happy hunting ground, but struggled to impose himself in the Pro12. Still sort of confusing.

Bren Macken’s British & Irish Cup record over the years [click to embiggen]: the Blackrock College alumnus found the competition a happy hunting ground, but struggled to impose himself in the Pro12. Still sort of confusing.

It’s a little strange that so few people view former Rabbitohs second row Ben Te’o as Macken’s replacement at second centre. Maybe it’s because people still see Macken as an youngster and Te’o as one of the fabled NIQs, a hero from the south; maybe it’s because Macken had slipped out of sight before he left for Gloucester. Because of Te’o’s late arrival from the NRL and his early-season broken arm, their seasons never really overlapped; Macken played his last game for Leinster in late November and after Te’o’s abortive first start against Edinburgh in October 2014, the Samoan-born league-man’s first run proper in the team came in the new year.

Ben Te'o has taken to rugby union far more adeptly than his more illustrious former Rabbitohs team-mate, Slammin' Sammy Burgess. His splay-footed running style and rolled offloads have been the only highpoints of Leinster's Six Nations campaign, but there's still a lot of adaptations to be made to kick n'clap.

Ben Te’o has taken to rugby union far more adeptly than his more illustrious former Rabbitohs team-mate, Slammin’ Sammy Burgess. His splay-footed running style and rolled offloads have been the only highpoints of Leinster’s Six Nations campaign, but there’s still a lot of adapting to be done if he wants to make it as a kick n’ clap legend.

Despite a quite shocking run of results – including the nadir of a home loss to the Newport Gwent Dragons – Teo has been a huge upgrade over the player he’s replacing. While they’re a relatively blunt instrument, his numbers over the seven games he has started in 2015 are extremely positive: on average a K/P/R of 0/4/11, with two clean breaks, five defenders beaten and two offloads per game [and an average of 55 metres run per game]. Those are outstanding figures.

However, it’s not all clover. Obviously, as somebody who has been playing rugby league for the last decade, he’s far from the finished article. He doesn’t have a f*cking clue what to do at most breakdowns, and while his ball presentation at the tackle is surprisingly good, he does have the tendency to turn over ball through offloads where he should have kept his hands to himself. It’ll also be hard to forget the three knock-ons in a row against the Dragons, when the big lad seemed to lose all composure as the final whistle neared.

Despite being a far more nimble-footed athlete and more gifted footballer than the straightforward hit-up artist many presumed him to be, Te’o’s signing is completely at odds with Leinster’s identity. Matt O’Connor’s imprimatur is branded on him, and nobody wants O’Connor to be the one to craft Leinster’s new identity, if one is to be crafted.

Luke Fitzgerald’s long-heralded switch to the No13 jersey has been better than a qualified success, and there is a wellspring of good will towards both the player and the project from within the province. One gets the impression that for the player, it’s an acceptable compromise if Schmidt selects him as a wing for Ireland, but a different proposition entirely if O’Connor pushes him out a spot to accommodate a guy who has only been playing the code for a matter of months. Fitzgerald has been Leinster’s most dangerous attacker since his return to blue, and his quick feet, willingness to offload and ability to stand-up and beat direct opponents in limited space are useful weapons in a centre’s armoury. While there remain reservations about his passing ability amongst a devoted few, there hasn’t been much blotchy evidence in his copybook on that count in recent times; those are more hangover memories from a number of seasons ago.

The Big Stall

Luke McGrath’s season has oscillated wildly between the promising and, unfortunately and frankly, the dreadful. His punchy try-scoring record [4 tries in 359 minutes of rugby spread out over 14 games] catches the eye, but the longer he stays on the pitch, the more evidence he provides for the doubters.

Luke McGrath

To be fair to O’Connor, his reticence regarding Luke McGrath’s promotion is probably warranted, as the youngster’s form has yo-yoed crazily this term. The best game he has played for Leinster was the home match against the Ospreys late in the season in 2012-13, when he was parachuted into the team on late notice. He hasn’t produced a performance of that calibre since, and has looked short on confidence this term.

As practically everybody who saw Rory Best’s performances for the Lions in Australia will attest to, golf isn’t the only sport in which you can suffer from the yips. The Ulsterman’s lineout throwing completely disintegrated against the Brumbies in a midweek dirt-trackers’ game, and was a key part in the tourists’ only defeat that summer. Best entirely lost his confidence out of touch, and despite the fact that he has logged hundreds of hours at the hooker’s oche, he couldn’t hit the side of a barn that evening.

While McGrath’s struggles are nowhere near as acute, there’s clearly a confidence issue that is linked to the unreliability of his pass. It’s not as though it’s a lack of practise or effort getting letting him: his work ethic and attitude have earned nothing but praise from his various coaches, reflected in the fact he has captained every team in which he has been selected, from his school cup side to Irish U18 Schools and U20s and Leinster ‘A’.

I’m not suggesting that the lad suffers from a full-on case of focal dystonia , but there’s something dishearteningly Tim Tebow-ish about a guy who double-ticks all the boxes except the one that’s most important for his position.

It has been a rotten season for Noel Reid: injured in the first minute of the first game of the season and precious little gametime at any level since his return.

It has been a rotten season for Noel Reid: injured in the first minute of the first game of the season and precious little gametime at any level since his return. Reid benefitted from a lot of chances in 2013-14 and finished the season strong, but he hasn’t had a run of games this season and has struggled to re-capture that form.

After the aforementioned break-out season last year, Noel Reid has never really got going this year: he was injured in the first minute of the first game of Leinster’s defense of their league title, and while it hasn’t all been quite as exaggeratedly bad as that, he hasn’t been able to build on the momentum he had generated by the end of the 2013-14 season.

While he returned in time to make his first European appearance against the Wasps, O’Connor’s decision to see Ian Madigan as more or less a full-time No12 has severely curtailed his gametime; beyond Madigan’s positional swap, Gordon D’Arcy’s huge experience and defensive solidity still makes him an attractive option, and his omission from Irish selections has only increased his provincial availability.

The Option Offense

Ah, “Heads up rugby” – the phrase that launched a thousand shit arguments.

Ian Madigan’s almost complete regression as an outhalf in Matt O’Connor’s system is not just down to the paucity of his selection in the No10 jersey, although obviously that plays its part. Madigan has given the Aussie coach ample excuse to rule him out of contention as an outhalf in any case; some of his performances in the position for Leinster over the last eighteen months have seen the team utterly shapeless.

However, as shown from his selection in recent Irish squads, Schmidt still retains some belief in him as a playmaker, which provides an inkling that the second half of the 2012-13 season – when Madigan first stepped into the blue No10 shirt in Jonny Sexton’s absence – wasn’t just some sweet dream.

To The Mole’s eye, the principle difference in Madigan’s fortunes under the two coaches is that Schmidt provided a more structured game around Madigan, while O’Connor runs a less structured, less intense and frankly sloppier shop. Many Madigan fans refer to his ‘playing with more freedom’ or playing more ‘off the cuff’ rugby under Schmidt; I don’t think that that’s an accurate reflection of what happened at all. It seems altogether more likely that there was a stricter, more detailed set of tactics employed by Schmidt that was carried out by a set of players who had drilled them into the ground for three years. To that extent, any freelancing or ‘heads up rugby’ from Madigan was limited to a binary decision: play the scheme or have a cut.

Those readers who think Madigan incapable of playing to conservative direction would do well to rewatch the long run of plays late in last season’s championship-clinching French game, where the outhalf conducted phase after phase of percentage rugby engineered to keep the ball close to each successive breakdown and run the clock down whilst providing the referee with the illusion that Ireland were actually trying to play attacking rugby.

At Leinster, Schmidt’s attacking plays, off both set piece and phase ball, were full of misdirection and carried out at breakneck speed; opposition defences were pushed to the limits of their processing power to analyse and establish who was running where and who was whose man, and for two seasons Madigan made hay on the back of his inside break, his poacher’s nose and the deception going on outside him.

With far less nuance and precision in the running lines and depth of those outside him in O’Connor’s system, as well as a surfeit of video evidence of his step n’fetchit routine, opposition teams are far more alive to the threat that Madigan offers as a breaking outhalf.

“I Didn’t Do It/It Wasn’t Me Officer, It Was A One-Armed Man”

The phrase ‘blame game’ exists because the words rhyme. It’s as simple as that. If the idea of blame had a different word to represent it, like ‘rhesus’ or ‘trumpet’ [those were the first words that came into my head: well done brain, you mentalist], no-one would coin the phrase ‘the rhesus game’ or ‘the trumpet game’.

Trying to establish blame is not a game – it’s a process of reasoning based on evidence. Alright, maybe it is a game, because that’s basically the methodology of Cluedo. Anyway, it’s an annoying, over-used phrase.

Matt O'Connor

Whilst the argument in the critique of corporate excess is that the man at the top is so staggeringly well-remunerated that he consequently bears the responsibility for mistakes/bad practice carried out by employees who earn a fraction of his salary, that’s not the situation at sports clubs; players are typically the most well-remunerated members of staff.

There are two schools of thought regarding attribution of blame [a word that has now lost all meaning to me] to a failed sporting endeavour: one is that the blame is shared equally between all parties concerned – everyone gets a medal if they win, everyone gets blamed if they lose – the other that the man at the top of the pyramid is responsible for everyone further down the line. If Pharaoh has displeased Amon Ra, Pharaoh is the one to fall.

While we haven’t been shy in criticising Matt O’Connor for elements of his selection, tactical acumen and sundry other issues, The Mole doesn’t believe that’s he’s solely responsible for Leinster’s overall under-performance thus far this year. Maybe that’s because that he comes across as a likeable guy. Maybe it’s that the players’ promises to ‘front up’ and their emphatic claims that losses were ‘on them’ haven’t really rung true, nor seen them do what they’ve said they’d do in the next match. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen a lot of rugby and witnessed the rise and fall of other members of the European ‘aristocracy’: Leicester, Wasps, Munster and Toulouse have all been at the top of the tree at various stages and have been knocked off their perch, and Leinster aren’t any different. O’Connor took over a team on the downside of their peak/in decline – call it what you will – and the European Cup is a hell of a tough competition to win. Clermont still haven’t won it, nor have the hugely subsidised Racing Metro, nor debt-and-diamond fuelled Saracens.

However, not winning the European Cup is one thing; winning only three matches away from home in a season [3-20 @ Zebre in October, 16-21 @ Castres the same month and 13-22 @ Cardiff in early January] is another. For the record, Cardiff are tenth in the Pro12, Zebre are dead last and Castres are twelfth of fourteen in the Top14.

If It Walks Like A Duck …

O’Connor is a lame duck coach: he’s got a year left to run on his contract, but there’s practically no chance it will be extended. Every indication suggests that the 2013-14 league triumph had more to do with the vestiges of Joe Schmidt’s tenure than with O’Connor’s influence, because his second year in charge has seen Leinster performances and results at a ten-year low.

There's always going to be an emphasis on the international game in a World Cup year, and it's hard not to think that the Leinster players involved in the Irish squad haven't had both eyes on the ball in provincial blue. Regular posters on the Leinsterfans website have commented on how difficult it is to name a candidate for the province's Player of the Season and, as the few remaining members of the O'Connor faithful have opined, the coach can't make the players' tackles for them.

There’s always going to be an emphasis on the international game in a World Cup year, and it’s hard not to think that the Leinster players involved in the Irish squad haven’t had both eyes on the ball in provincial blue. Regular posters on the Leinsterfans website have commented on how difficult it is to name a candidate for the province’s Player of the Season and, as the few remaining members of the O’Connor faithful have opined, the coach can’t make the players’ tackles for them.

It puts the provincial brass in as awkward a position as they have been in over that time frame; I’d compare it to the IRFU’s position following the 60-0 loss to New Zealand in June 2012.

Some readers may not agree with the argument, but I saw Kidney’s refusal to resign in the wake of that tour [and after what had been a pretty miserable Six Nations] as a sign that he thought the result was within the bounds of acceptability. If you’ve been in charge for four years and you lose 60-0, it’s either an acceptable result or you resign. Again, some may not agree, but I thought the IRFU’s refusal to sack him was a tacit approval of that line of thinking. The following international season was a complete clusterfuck that saw Ireland finish in their lowest position on the Six Nations table since Italy joined the tournament, and the Union ended up sacking him anyway.

O’Connor hasn’t been in the job for as long as Kidney held the Irish post, and I don’t expect him to resign. After all, a club job isn’t the same as a national job. But it isn’t really about his decision: it’s about the decision his employers have to make. O’Connor has overseen the guts of sixty matches, and it’s readily apparent that Leinster have regressed at a staggering rate in that period. It’s a large enough sample size to make an informed decision.

The Moment of Bluth

Leinster have a huge test ahead of them in Marseille. It’s a chance to revenge themselves on last season’s conquerors, a chance to stop Toulon joining them on three European Cups, and a chance to prevent Monsieur Boudjellal’s well-paid globetrotters being the first team to win three in a row.

On an introspective front, it’s an opportunity for the players to make something of what has been the most disappointing season in many, many years. For Matt O’Connor, it’s possibly the only chance to redeem his reputation amongst the team’s supporters and muster a signature performance in what has been a turbulent and stressful year.

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20 thoughts on “No Backs Please, We’re Leinster

  1. Very interesting reading and some nice points made. I really think that’s it is a definite mix of poor coaching and poor players. MOC seems to be as Mr Quinlan pointed out in a recent article a coach who doesn’t really have a convincing stamp on the team or a proper style of rugby. It seems not to be a careful risk aversion tactic, nor is it swashbuckling rugby. Leinster haven’t closed out games that seemed won, letting teams back into games and they also haven’t lit up the world with a positive brand of rugby. My reasoning as to why it’s his problem is that the players seem to perform a lot better for Ireland. Maybe they feel safer or more confident. I also feel that MOC has dealt badly with the loss of Drico and demise of Darce. My biggest shock is the persistent wit Gopperth at 10 even though I get the feeling once we knew about his move to Wasps and Sexton coming back he was kind of a spent force at Leinster.

  2. great article, hard to summarise two years of decline so neatly. I actually feel it was a dream job to walk into. A successful environment chock full of talented players. yes there was retiring legends but kearney,Heaslip,Healy,SOB are all leaders in the irish set up. Not exactly a dressing room short of leaders and experience.
    The last part is interesting with regard what are the board/upper management doing?If Matt O’Connor is responsible for the demise Cullen is not blameless. Upper management who decided MOC deserved a 3 year contract never having been a head coach in his own right and appointing a forwards coach with no experience wasn’t exactly putting together a coaching ticket to compete at the top level.
    if they wait a year for the inevitable how much further down will Leinster have slid to?at some point you have to arrest the slide and changing the coach seems to be the only real option for a province-changing your playing roster might be an option in France but not in a system reliant on indigenous talent.

  3. Great article. Agree wholeheartedly. There are two points I’d make however. One, your criticism of Luke McGrath is fair; that said I don’t ever remember him nearly losing us a match with a charged down box kick in our own 22 one week, only to repeat the same mistake a week later, ensuring that we lose (take a bow Eoin Reddan). Two, this season Leinster have been missing two things: leadership and ruthlessness. Mick Dawson has to provide them – now!!!!!

  4. I can’t help feeling there is an element of protesting too much here…

    What European professional rugby side has ever managed to consistently win trophies every year, year after year after year…. Toulouse haven’t, Leicester haven’t, Munster haven’t… why should Leinster be any different? Cycles are inevitable.

    Whatever of MOC, the latest batch of Leinster’s players simply aren’t as good as the previous generation, and there may be an element of overhyping a number of them on the basis of age grade performances.

    • They don’t necessarily need to win but a standard of performance should be expected. Top 4 with leinsters playing roster is a minimum. 13 of the squad managed a 6 nations under different management. It points to a difference in quality of coaching.

    • We wrote about the feeling of xenophobia surrounding MOC’s first season last year in Sakoku but things have only gotten worse since then…
      While Leinster still have a shot at the European Cup, we’re not talking about consistently winning trophies every year, we’re talking about a team that has finished no lower than third (i.e. the playoffs) in every season since 05/06 win less than half their games so far and finish outside the playoffs. There were four players from the 05/06 squad still playing in the 13/14 squad (D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Heaslip and Rob Kearney), the rest of the personnel was turned over so this wasn’t the passing of a team causing a drop in standards.
      Saying that the latest batch of Leinster’s players aren’t as good as the previous generation when the latest batch get played so infrequently isn’t fair to them.
      The idea of Cycles, in a similar manner to teams being in transition, is a misleading one in sports. It suggests that good times will come again with some regularity in the manner of the seasons following each other. That isn’t the case.

      • “Cycle” is perhaps the wrong word given a downturn is inevitable but an upturn isn’t. Leinster don’t have some god-given right to always finish in a play-off position.

      • O’Connor has a decent pedigree, and has been around some quality sides. He is well spoken of, but at the same time, I don’t remember Leicester’s backs looking very cohesive in his time there – it was a forward-oriented team with some serious bosh in the backline in the form of Tuilagi, Allen etc.

        More mercurial talent like Twelvetrees and Ford left the Tigers in frustration at being stuck behind more steady, workmanlike players like Toby Flood. I know Cockerill was in charge but it’s hard not to see O’Connor as the common denominator and read Flood = Gopperth. Madigan currently looks more Twelvetrees than Ford, but two years being played out of position can do that to you.

        Matt O’Connor is well regarded within the professional game (Richard Cockerill at Leicester was recently bemoaning the loss of his talents). I would love to see him succeed at Leinster, not least because he seems like a decent guy. What do pros see that we don’t?

  5. Fanning is a poor man’s Cuthbert, who in turn is a rubbish version of North. Fair play to him for working as hard as he has to get a contract but let’s not pretend he’s anything other than a good UBL player.

    To those who say Leinster should accept the fall from the top with good grace as part of some unavoidable intervention of the Fates well I strongly disagree. Hard work with a bit of guile is hardly too much to ask for and most leinster fans would be happy enough with that as we deal with a some squad changes. The hard work is the player’s responsibility and the guile the coach’s. We must be the most predictable team in Europe at this stage and that is very much a coaching issue.

    Finally while I could possibly accept that the Irish squaddies have one eye on September/October, what excuse do the rest of them have?

    Oh and any word on Kevin McLoughlin?

  6. Outside the numerous things you mention there are so many little things that suggest a guy a little out of his depth. His relationship with the practically cuddly Irish rugby media has been edgy and excuse ridden. His comments about Mads not being a test grade 12 etc. … just things that Joe or a really in control guy wouldn’t do..

    His decision to play such an understrength side in such a key game against the Dragons (and to utilise the bench so late) borders on self destructive. In reality we are never likely to beat Toulon in France. This was a season (and hopefully tenure) deciding game.

    You mention the Luke switch away from 13 but for me it is huge. He was the one bright spark of this season in attack and to move him into an area where we already have relative strength (Dave, McFadden and Zane all multiple caps) just seems odd. I would have liked to see Teo at 12 with Luke at 13. Teo being a recent convert might have found it easier to defend at 12. Given their strengths they might have worked in the unstructured environment that is all we’ve been able to organise.

    Finally his perseverance with Jimmy (he started every game this season) through some awful rugby has been a death knell. For all Mads flaws Joe Schmidt has selected him as his backup ahead of Ulster and Munster’s best. Despite a bright start in 2013 Gothbert has often looked like what he is, a journeyman from a low tier English club brought in as backup. O’Connnor nailed his colours to the mast on this selection and has as much as any other factor sank because of it.

    Thanks for the superb article, I’m full sure I’ll read bits of it again in the mainstream press.

  7. Mole,
    Your lucidity written and well-researched arguments should be required reading for Leinster and Irish management. Whilst accepting that no Club has a ‘right’ to ongoing success, a Club with the Academy depth and playing roster of Leinster have a right to expect a coherent and progressive performance, from whomever is selected, week-on-week.

    Too often this year that has been lacking. From November onwards, MOC should have been able to clearly assess (bar injuries) who would be available to play the Pro12 fixtures. Rather than focus his training sessions and tactical plans on those who would be available to him, he appears to have decided to voice his annoyance that National call-ups were disturbing the progress of his team.

    It’s also worth noting that Leinster A had won successive B&I cups with Girvan Dempsey coaching and that even a very weakened A team only lost this year’s semi-final fixture, away to eventual winners Worcester, by a point.

    A Pro12 team based around those who played in those three successive seasons of B&I wins & S/F could read something like: 15. Kelleher; 14. Coughlan-Murray, 13. Daly, 12. Reid, 11, Byrne; 10. Marsh, 9. McGrath; 1. Bent, 2. Dundon (B. Byrne); 3. Furlong, 4. Denton, 5. Moloney 6. Ryan, 7. Van der Flier, 8. Conan.

    If Kirchner, T’eo, Douglas and Goppart (as constantly available overseas players) with McGloughlin & Jennings were added for edge & wisdom and included in this mix, Leinster could have presented a pretty regular team with minimal disruption for Pro12 games from mid-December onwards and the opportunity for player development through game time and higher-level exposure. Many coaches in the Pro12 League would have been happy to have that selection available.

    Sad to say that the Jury has probably just returned in this case. The first clues to the prosecution case began to emerge last year, but the DPP (definitely partisan public) were not prepared to accept there was sufficient evidence available. There can be no doubt now that the evidence abounds and the only judgements to be made are whether it is group conspiracy or merely individual incompetence.

    Finally, its worth noting that the demise of a rugby Head Coach who has fallen below expectations is not all that unusual. Fabien Galtie lost his job in Montpelier earlier this season; Mark Anscombe lost his job in Ulster last summer whilst Ewen McKenzie lost the Australian National job last October in somewhat more interesting circumstances.

    There is no ideal time to make such a decision, but it is essential that the decision after that is taken with as much time and research as it is necessary to find the right replacement.

  8. Terrific read as always. A coaching inability to iron out glaring defects in the gameplan, has filled me with dread ever since Toulon lst year.
    Leinster often have ball around the 40yd line, pass goes to Gopperth on the 30, which is bad enough, but Gopperth then skips a player by flinging it back another 10 or so yards, leaving the receiver barely outside the 22. A loss of 20 yards for no reason at all. Depressing.
    MOC’s laissez faire attitude to press duties, tactics, and management are not going to miraculosuly improve.
    I expect cocooned players, ex-players, and rugby scribes, to defend this durge but without fans, there is no professional game. We’ve a right to ask questions.
    It would be reassuring to hear at least one Leinster player, past or present, deliver a bit of honesty with regard to the shit being offered up as rugby this season.

  9. Patrick McGrarry reported at sportsjoe.ie on Wednesday, April 15, that Leinster had sent back a portion of their allocation of tickets for the Toulon semi, as they were unable to sell them all. If that doesn’t set off alarm bells in the RDS or UCD, then nothing will!!!!!

  10. Do you think O’Connor should be replaced for next season then, Mole? What would be your opinions on Mike Ruddock taking over? I think he coaches a good breakdown – as seen against the Baby Boks in 2012 – and Ireland under-20s generally fared well against England and France when he was in charge, which could be a good indicator for how he’d get on coaching against club sides from those countries. I’ve heard some imply that be might not be a top-class technical coach though. Is there anything in that? I think a period of rebuilding is necessary in the backline, and Ruddock, in conjunction with Dempsey as backs coach, might be the man for the job, seeing as how he’s worked with a lot of the academy guys at U-20s level. Am I way off? Any thoughts?

    • It is a question we asked ourselves Richie and worthy of a post of itself. I think he should be replaced and that Ruddock is best placed to take over. Whether he is best placed to do the job for an extended period would be based on results which isn’t much of an insight. It does raise the question of selection and promotion from within but, as above, it’s worthy of a post by itself.

  11. Pingback: Leinster’s Rubbish Season | Whiff of Cordite

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