MATT O’CONNOR’S SECOND season in charge of Leinster will be intriguing, given the loss of key leaders in the playing squad and the expected continuation of a shift in playing style for the province.
The personnel is different behind the scenes too, with Leo Cullen assuming Jono Gibbes’ position as forwards coach and Marco Caputo coming on board as a scrum specialist.
Cullen was a major driving force behind Leinster’s development into three-time Heineken Cup champions and status as one of the best club sides in world rugby, so his ongoing involvement after retirement from playing is important for O’Connor.
“He’s a hell of a lot happier than he has been in previous pre-seasons, from what I can see! It’s not like he’s brand new, in the sense that he knows the environment incredibly well. He’s probably a lot further down the road than a lot of rookie coaches that you’ll come across.”
He’s always had a foot in the management camp, because that’s the sort of personality he is. He has always driven the standards incredibly hard and as a player has been the intellect of the side.
“There’s significant steps up in responsibility and it’s a little bit different in relation to having to work a computer, but he’s doing alright.”
Australian lock Kane Douglas is the man Leinster have recruited to fill the gap left by Cullen in their second row, and O’Connor is upbeat about the 25-year-old’s arrival following the Super Rugby season.
“He’s going to give us a bloke 10 years younger than Leo, which should be helpful for us! He’s a tremendous young kid who is excited about coming to Dublin and playing at the very top end of Europe.
From that end, he’s a guy that plays 80 minutes every week. The Waratahs are doing incredibly well in the Super Rugby at the minute and he’s been a big part of that. So he’s really excited about joining Leinster and if he can translate his enthusiasm to performances, we’ll be flying.”
Another individual who will be closely watched by Leinster supporters will be the talented Ian Madigan, who had a frustrating 2013/14 campaign, albeit one that ended on a series of high notes.
The 25-year-old had to sit behind Jimmy Gopperth for some of the biggest games of the season, but showed quality in glimpses at inside centre. Could he be set for a more permanent shift to midfield this season?
“Potentially, yeah, but I wouldn’t be too quick to take him out of 10,” says O’Connor. “A lot of the best 12s in the world have spent significant time at 10. I think that Ian’s got a lot of development to do there at first receiver.
He’s certainly showed at the back end of the season that he’s more than capable of doing a job there [at 12] for us if required.”
Echoing the improvements he can see coming from Madigan, O’Connor is keen for a similar progression across the board at Leinster. He was thrilled by his squad’s “middle tier and the progress that they made” last season, and hopes for more of the same.
“The growth areas are across the board. We aim to be very good at everything we do. From that end, that’s what we spend the vast majority of our time doing. We’re not comfortable with any areas of our game and we will be better simply on the back of the combinations and the systems and the terminology being bedded in 12 months longer.
“You spend your whole time trying to be better and trying to come up with opportunities that you can exploit the opposition from.”