Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Matt Matters

Issues surrounding Leinster Rugby and Matt O’Connor’s part in them, by Big Joe Shep...

The Issue (Apparently):

Leinster Rugby are having the worst start for years and years and everyone (well those who REALLY understand the issue!!) are up in arms and it’s ALL Matt O’Connor’s fault and he should be sacked. And Reddan is past it, Goppers is rubbish and wouldn’t even make a decent AIL league team….what’s Fanning doing for most of the games, Heaslip’s not a true leader and Healy is good enough to play with one leg so why isn’t he cos that Bent bloke couldn’t prop up a bar and anyway, it’s not the injuries that are the problem. It’s ALL down to O’Connor and he should be sacked.

In fact the way he has Leicester (oops sorry Leinster) training and playing has no doubt caused some of those injuries and he should be sacked and it’s not the fault of losing key playing and coaching staff in these last two seasons, he should be sacked and he’s a rubbish coach and he should be sacked and I wouldn't trust him to organise the Leinster Xmas pissup at St James’ Gate and he should be sacked and he’s probably in cahoots with the Government over the water tax and he should be sacked and and and and and and…………………….

REALLY?????? Let’s see shall we………………..

Who Is Matt O’Connor?

Matthew Gerard O'Connor (Matt) was born on 29 Jan 71 in Canberra Australia. Married with 3 children, he is the son of a former Australian rugby league player. O'Connor played most of his club rugby in Canberra with the Brumbies and was capped only once at senior level by Australia against Ireland in 1994. He undoubtedly would have played more for his country had it not been a period when the man Brian O’Driscoll hails as a childhood idol, world class Centre Tim Horan been around.

He took in a spell in Super League and also played then played and coached in Japan with Kubota Spears gaining promotion in his first season and a top 4 finish in the major league before his return to Australia where he worked for four years with the Brumbies working with George Gregan, Stirling Mortlock, Stephen Larkham et al whilst at the same time coaching the Australia “A” team backs. He eventually joined Leicester Tigers in early 2009.

The Tigers picked up the Premiership trophy at Twickenham in 2009, retained the title in May 2010 and O'Connor became head coach in July of that year under Richard Cockerill. They were beaten finalists in 2011 & 2012 and after guiding them to the 2013 Premiership title, O'Connor took up a three-year contract with Leinster. Not a bad resume by any stretch.

Leinster's Current Issues: The “Slow September Start”:

Well one thing is for certain, this is a sound bite that has been doing the rounds a lot. There were many fans who would have been cautious of O’Connor’s appointment taking over from such a charismatic and people orientated individual that is the semi-deity known as “Saint” Joe Schmidt however is our current situation (at this stage of the season) the “Norm” or is it caused by the current coach?

Under Joe Schmidt:

1st Season: Leinster lost two out of four initial league games.

2nd Season: They lost three out of four.

3rd Season: They lost two out of four.

4th Season: They lost two out of five.

During Joes reign, we won only 1 out of a possible 3 Pro 12 titles but 2 Heineken Cups & an Amlin Challenge cup.

Under Matt O’Connor:

1st Season: Leinster won two, drew one and lost one to Glasgow, with a losing bonus-point then went on to win the Pro 12 despite at one point being adrift of Munster by some 10 points!

2nd Season: So far, won 2 and lost 3 but with 2 losing bonus points.

As Leinster hooking legend, Shane Byrne stated recently, "On Leinster not starting off well - barring last year (2013) - we normally don't start off very well. There are ups and downs. But, the silverware has come in.”

The Injuries, Players & Player Responsibilities:


Clearly, it hasn’t helped the start to our season with a number of key players leaving at the end of the last 2 seasons (I use 2 seasons owing to the relatively short “Real Time” this is and the cumulative effect on the building and development of a team for a new coach and the effect on the players) (Nacewa, Sexton, Cullen, O’Driscoll) together with changes in the coaching staff (Leo Cullen, Marco Caputo et al in, Jono Gibbes’ out) and the huge injury list we are amassing. Out on either long or short term include, McFadden, O’Brian, Healy, Fitzgerald, Kirchner, Dave Kearney, Murphy, Reid & Strauss. (Forgive me, there may be others but I cannot honestly keep count and anyway, the Leinster “Media” operation hasn’t actually blazed a glory in actualities on what’s happening to whom, when and how, let alone allowing an ill prepared coach to speak in public?)

Tactical Awareness: On & Off the Field?

None of these issues are down to Matt O’Connor in their entirety. Leinster Rugby is a business and as such has systems and processes in play to ensure that things are handled correctly. The perception however, is that there’s a little creaking in places and the ship whilst sound, needs a little counter-ballast to steady up. He has inherited what he has. All things are cyclical. All teams have championship “Windows of Opportunity”. Look at ASM Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Leicester Tigers and others. Champion teams come and go. Correct structures in place throughout the organisation allow grass roots to develop through

Academies to senior squads and beyond. This may simply be Leinsters time to re-group, rebuild and re-develop.

Matt DOES need to articulate however WHAT his overall tactical approach is? What and WHY he is playing or attempting to play with his offensive & defensive plays? WHY they don’t appear to be able to ADAPT when it’s going wrong on the field? Perhaps if he could articulate that, fans would be more forgiving and accept that perhaps just PERHAPS, it will take a season or 2 to get the newly developed team where it needs to be. It took Sir Alex Ferguson some 5 – 6 years to win anything at Man Utd and look at what history will tell. Just like Man Utd, we cannot afford to let a David Moyes occur?? It takes time to rebuild a team with new players, new staff and new systems.

Matt has made good use of youth, a successful “A” team through Girve Dempsey with back to back British & Irish Cup wins under their belt and a strong developing academy. Indeed he has catapulted Mick McGrath from AIL status straight to senior squad. He may yet need to utilise some more as the season goes on, injuries and 6 Nations / Internationals dependent?

Players & Responsibility:

I’m afraid that players MUST accept responsibility for a lot of what happens on the pitch. Within any group, club, business, organisation or whatever, when changes come around and big changes at that, those actually doing the business day in and day out must stand up and be counted. When Leinster play well, they’re on fire, when they don’t they’re shocking. I covered the fact in a previous post regarding the 2011 Heineken Cup Final when we were 22 – 6 down to Northampton Saints and following a churchillian-like speech from one Jonny Sexton, they came out, on fire and turned it around winning 33 – 22.

Currently, there is very little leadership or for the most part, ownership of responsibility from key senior players. When they are playing poorly, Jimmy Gopperth is dreadful and appears to be incapable or tactically unaware and incapable of the changes required? When they are on fire, he comes into his own? When he is on top form, he’s simply world class. I do accept though that he IS a stop gap for 2 – 3 seasons whilst the club is under transition. Likewise, I also readily accept that mixing players around position doesn’t help. What made Drico & Darce so special was they played with each other so often they knew instinctively where and what was required.

On a poor defence, Rob Kearney has stated recently that “We have been poor there (defence) over the last few years, especially last year in the Rabo (Pro 12). We were close to the worse for conceding tries”. Now if Rob is stating that and it was happening under “Saint Joe’s” tenure, perhaps Leinster were lucky. Certainly it’s widely accepted that often we won both ugly and lucky, but we did win nonetheless.

I opined in my last write up that Jamie Heaslip is both world class and a natural leader but because he is SOOOOO involved in the games, a lot of the time he doesn’t act as the effective leader the team and the coach currently need him to be. Overall club captain, YES PLEASE….on field captain, not really I’m afraid. This has happened to a number of top sporting stars during my life and they simply give up the captaincy OR it’s removed amidst gnashing of teeth and wailing of gums by those who don’t really get why it’s occurred. When Heaslip does get it ALL together, it’s inspiring for all to see and I suspect to be part of.

Bottom line is if things aren’t going right during a game, then the players have enough about them to change the play. They practice enough different plays to be able to dos o?

Conclusion (For now!):

O’Connor has been accused by some of turning Leinster into a mix of Leicester and a rugby league team. There were similar detractors during his time at Leicester but results speak for themselves. His trophy haul and success were impressive. The Tigers played a very strong pacy game with strength from their forwards (which may have given rise to their purely bulldozing manner) and pace, vision and adaptability through the open channels. I therefore believe O’Connor’s vision (from what my limited tight head prop view allows), is getting Leinster to mix up the power, pace & strength with a strong central channel.

Perhaps that’s what he has in mind with Ben Te’o arriving. A strong centre with playmakers around him will allow both defined handling, tactical awareness and a stronger running game through the centre and out as necessary. Certainly Bath Rugby appear to have “Moulded” Kyle Eastmond, who also transferred codes successfully in this manner, but it’s taken a season or so but his relationship both with the Centre Jonathan Joseph and Fly half George Ford is I strongly suspect what O’Connor is aiming at. Whilst he has some areas to improve, so do the players, the club. It’s simply (in my estimation and opinion) a transitional period for a club that remains one of the most feared and respected in Europe and remember, Leinster are stronger away than at home.

We will therefore get there but for now we must allow Matt and the players the time to develop whilst working around the plethora of injuries and other matters that are currently holding us back. I’d say holding us back from our usual success but as the facts show above, he’s on par if not better that the same periods that Joe had us. It’s a long term journey we are on and whilst it would be great to win every week, every season, it doesn’t work that way.

Anyhow, to re-cap...

MOC was a decent centre with a flair for both Union & League and understands the benefits of mixing super rugby and union to give a more exciting overall game. The crossing of codes will continue to do so and he has the knowledge to exploit that into Leinsters game.

Whilst his playing career may not be that of some world class players, many MANY successful sporting coaches have the knowledge of the “How” but are actually better at the “Why”. (N.B. Joe Schmidt never played top level rugby, He was a teacher turned coach and a natural coach at that, but even Leinster under his guidance lost 2 of 3 Pro 12 Titles?)

He was the coach then head coach with Leicester Tigers and won 3 Premiership titles in 5 years and was runner-up in the other two years. O‘Connor understands about upholding legacy.

If you look at Leicester Tigers current form, you might believe that all their success (2009 – 2013) was down to Matt O’Connor?

He has been backed by some of the greatest players to play and was personally approved by Joe Schmidt. Tom Croft, the former Leicester, England & Lions Flanker stated; "He is a superb coach in attack and defence, the way he gets the boys’ right, his personal relationships with players are very good, he is an excellent man manager and players have a lot of respect for him. He is a world-class coach and I think he has proved that in the way he has shaped Leicester's attack and defence”. Toby Flood stated about O’Connor, “"Matty is driven by detail and the tendencies of defenders ... he is very precise in what he does. We really try and expose individuals."

Leinster Rugby has on stats done worse under Joe Schmidt in the starting games of the season than they have under Matt O’Connor.

Senior players accept that defensively under Joe Schmidt at times they leaked tries and they are still working on this.

Matt has a vision and more importantly the backing of the players who understand what he’s trying to do. He’s NOT Joe Schmidt. He IS Matt O’Connor and he brings with him a new way of playing that will need time and together with the turnaround of players he would have during his tenure and to enable Leinster Rugby to build, develop and emerge a stronger team on the other side, he and the entire club require the continued support of all fans. This isn’t soccer, we’re not that fickle!

Overall Verdict: Matt O’Connor is the right man to take Leinster Rugby forward at this time.

@bigjoeshep is the Owner and Head of Information & Knowledge Management atDigital Knowledge Zone.   An avid Leinster & Ireland Rugby fan, he came to rugby at the late age of 24, was a tight head prop, had at least 2 good runs in every game and retired at only 36 after 3 operations on his legs and now forms the 4th "virtual" person in a front row each time his beloved teams are playing (much to the annoyance of his suffering girlfriend who has to put up with being "embraced" by the Big Fella at each scrum!!!)


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019