Former Leinster Head Coach Matt O’Connor publically aired his views in the aftermath of his sacking
In many ways the manner in which Matt O’Connor was removed from his position was a watershed moment for Irish club rugby. While Tony McGahan, Rob Penney and Mark Anscombe all left Ireland under a cloud, their departures differ from that of Matt O’Connor.
Although the final days of Tony McGahan’s tenure as Munster boss will always be remembered for a humiliating 45-10 defeat to the Ospreys, he was allowed see out his contract. Similarly, despite disquiet amongst some supporters, Rob Penney was given his two years at Munster, before deciding not to pursue a third and left for Japan. Although Mark Anscombe had extended his stay at Ulster by another season in early 2014, the departure of David Humphreys in June of that year created too much uncertainty surrounding the New Zealanders position and was forced out.
However with a year to run on his contract, O’Connor was effectively sacked in a similar manner to which English Premier League mangers are let go. From early in the season it seemed as if Leinster supporters were turning on the province’s coach, as league results were not living up to expectation. This was not lost on O’Connor, when speaking on 2FM’s Game On, he said ‘we spoke a lot about trying to ignore the distractions and the noise from outside and focus on the positives inside.’ While O’Connor claimed that Blues fans were ‘fantastic’, he was also critical of supporters who ‘need to have a little more clarity in relation to what’s acceptable and what’s realistic’.
Although O’Connor, in a moment of reflection, did admit ‘I probably didn’t do as good a job as I should have’, he also argued that ‘to come fifth is no disgrace, but the expectation is higher than that, and we are disappointed with that. We would have backed ourselves if we had got into that top four [to] go on and push for a title’.
Defending his record, O’Connor pointed to the fact that Leinster had entered a period of transition. ‘There was a lot of changes in the back room and we lost a lot of significant leaders, as we did out of the changing room, and there was always going to be a transitional period for Leinster’. While some Leinster fans would debate otherwise, O’Connor can legitimately point to the fact that the province had entered a period of transition. Leinster have lost the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Isa Nacewa, Johnny Sexton, Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings in recent seasons. They have also haemorrhaged backroom staff such as Junno Gibbes and Greg Feek. Therefore the task facing O’Connor may have been greater than he or the supporters originally imagined.
He also lamented missing key players at important junctures during the season. He argued ‘we had a pretty disruptive campaign across the whole league… We had injuries at the start of the season and then it gets broken up with the international schedule’.
While it is true to say that Leinster did suffer from a number of injuries last season, he cannot use the international schedule as a defence. The hierarchical structure of Irish rugby ensures that the national team comes first, and he knew that this was going to be the case when taking the job. If he didn’t he was being extremely naïve. He has form in this regard, after complaining about the lack of time he had with Leinster’s international players, after their defeat to the Dragons. Something which Joe Schmidt took exception to.
When asked if Leo Cullen was the right man to take over from him, O’Connor responded ‘Yeah, definitely. There’s nobody that knows more about Leinster rugby than Leo Cullen’. It is becoming increasingly likely that Cullen will be awarded the job, at least until the end of next season. Potential candidates such as Robbie Deans and Ewen McKenzie have distanced themselves from the position, leaving Leinster short on time as the new season approaches. The situation is complicated by upcoming World Cup, given that a potential coach will be without Leinster’s international players for the early rounds of the league and have limited time with them before opening their extremely difficult Champions Cup campaign.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena