Following Leinster’s close 25-20 win over Wasps, Conor Heffernan explores how there could be a new dawn beckoning at Leinster under Matt O’Connor.
In an interview with the Irish Independent last week, Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor claimed Leinster had every chance of winning this year’s European Champions Cup.
It was a bold statement from a man who went into an opening European match against London Wasps with a severely depleted squad. Few people believed O’Connor was serious and when Leinster went into half time against Wasps losing 20-11, it appeared as if the Leinster coach had spoken too soon.
The first 40 minutes against Wasps last weekend showcased many of the problems that have plagued the Blues this season. Poor around the fringes and ill disciplined at key moments, Leinster’s first half performance was tough viewing for fans of the game.
The home team struggled for large patches of the game to piece together any sort of consistent play. Also worryingly for Leinster, the first half also showcased a potential fragility in the Leinster defence with fans treated to a Christian Wade’s try that saw the Wasps winger leave three Leinster defenders for dead on his way to capping off a stunning try.
Although Leinster kept the game in touching distance through the boot of Ian Madigan and a try from Darragh Fanning, few held out hope for a Leinster comeback in the second half.
Seeing Brian O’Driscoll carrying a television microphone at half time and not playing on the pitch was a stark reminder of the losses Leinster have suffered since this time last year. Nine points down at half time and without key players like O’Brien, Healy and Kearney, the Blues looked to be on their way to an opening game defeat.
Yet as Munster had shown the previous day, the Irish Provinces are no walkovers. Leinster came out for the second half a different team with Jamie Heaslip taking the game by the scruff of the neck and driving O’Connor’s men forward. Heaslip took on huge responsibility during the second half, carrying the ball at every opportunity, breaking the gain-line and proving a menace at the breakdown.
But Wasps weren’t going to give up their lead so easily and for sixty minutes effectively kept the home side out. It was only once Dominic Ryan scored to put Leinster ahead that the Province finally looked like controlling the game.
It wasn’t the most polished performance from a team with the European pedigree of Leinster, but a win’s a win. Considering the Boys in Blue were down to the bare bones of the squad, O’Connor can be satisfied with the performance.
Looking towards next weekend’s match away at Castres it is clear that Leinster need to improve in a number of key areas. The Blues’ fringe defence was particularly notable during the Wasps match for its ineffectiveness. Coupled with Leinster’s worrying disciplinary lapses during the match; Matt O’Connor will need to spend this week organising his team.
Another issue of contention amongst Leinster fans has been the Head Coach’s reluctance to play Luke McGrath in big matches. The young Leinster pup has gained an almost mythical status in the Leinster fanboards for his ability to speed up the game.
Should O’Connor wish to go at Castres from the off next weekend, McGrath may be the man to call upon. Questions have also been raised about O’Connor’s decision-making with the substitutions of Cronin and Reddan raising a number of eyebrows. The bottom line is that more can be done from the Australian.
Leinster’s start to the season has been shaky to say the least. Three wins out of six in the Guinness Pro12 haven’t been good enough for many fans of the Blues. A humiliating defeat to Munster in the Aviva last month was a particular low point for O’Connor’s tenure.
O’Connor’s reputation at Leinster this year will be made or lost in Europe. Last season’s quarter-final exit against Toulon wasn’t good enough in the opinion of many fans and last season’s Pro12 title was merely a consolation. Europe is the top prize and everyone knows it.
Leinster have a proven pedigree in Europe, its up to O’Connor to continue the legacy. Yesterday’s victory over Wasps could be the beginning of a new dawn for Leinster rugby. Once key players return from injury, there’s no denying O’Connor’s men have the potential to become one of the most feared sides in Europe. Whether this happens or not, is another matter.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena
Featured image By justinhourigan (flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons