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 Ward, Brent Pope, Sean 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.‘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.“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.
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.
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.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.
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.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.