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Best for both parties as O'Connor heads for the Leinster exit door

The Australian is likely to head back to his native land for his next job.

OFTENTIMES CHANGE CAN be a good thing, but Matt O’Connor’s coaching style and philosophy just didn’t work out at Leinster.

After two mixed seasons the Australian has headed for the exit door, leaving the third year of his contract behind. In truth, it’s the best thing for both parties.

LeinsterÕs Head Coach Matt O'Connor O'Connor is well liked by Leinster's players. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The consensus has grown and grown in recent months among Leinster supporters that the Australian simply was not the man to lead the province to further success, although it should be said that the majority have been balanced and fair in their criticism.

Nonetheless, it had appeared that Mick Dawson and the powers that be within Leinster had decided that allowing O’Connor to see out the final year of his deal was the most suitable option in light of the upcoming World Cup season, one which promises to be hugely disrupted.

That made this morning’s announcement of O’Connor’s departure by “mutual consent” all the more surprising. Unusually, there were no real sniffs of the story in the early part of the week. A sign that most people had accepted O’Connor was staying put.

Leinster’s playing staff were also unaware until this morning’s meeting that the Australian would be heading away. Gathered at the province’s training base in UCD, the senior players were informed of O’Connor’s departure.

The instant reaction when we hear of a coach leaving by “mutual consent” is to presume that they’ve been sacked and that both parties have agreed to term the sacking in a more positive light.

Oddly, it appears that O’Connor is actually leaving following a shared agreement and that it was the Australian who put the idea forward.

Back in his homeland, the Queensland Reds are enduring a miserable season under Richard Graham, the atmosphere within the franchise now at poisonous levels. Players are looking to get out of a sinking ship and Graham’s days are numbered.

Matt O'Connor O'Connor arrived at Leinster from the Leicester Tigers in England. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

O’Connor is believed to feature high on the Reds’ list of candidates to replace Graham ahead of the 2016 Super Rugby season and it appears that having learned as much, O’Connor transmitted his interest in the role.

There are other options for O’Connor in Australia aside from that Reds possibility. He is due to head home next week to further explore those options and it would be no surprise to see him bounce back soon.

Clearly, the past year has not been an enjoyable time for O’Connor as his Leinster side have stuttered and failed on the pitch and it seems obvious that the former Leicester coach was enduring rather than thriving.

Naturally enough, Leinster have been greatly disappointed with this season, but the prospect of sacking O’Connor, having to pay up the last year of his deal, and then paying for a new coach on top of that perhaps swayed any concrete thoughts of sacking him.

O’Connor putting forward the idea that he would leave, however, may have been the nudge that Leinster needed. No need for a sacking, no need for a pay-off, but most certainly the opportunity to put a halt to the province’s decline.

Either way, it’s the end to a depressing season that some had hoped for. Despite a Pro12 title, a Heineken Cup quarter-final and then bringing his team to within a whisker of reaching this season’s Champions Cup final, O’Connor has never won over the fans.

The province would have happily continued with Joe Schmidt as their head coach had the Kiwi not taken on the Ireland job in 2013, but his departure saw Leinster opt for a candidate with a different approach.

In the strangest way, it was possibly a welcome thing at first. How sustainable is Schmidt’s ceaseless demand for detail and perfection? Ireland players now speak of a degree of relief at getting out of international camp after eight weeks of the Six Nations; what must it be like over the course of back-to-back seasons?

Fergus McFadden and Jonathan Sexton celebrate with Joe Schmidt Succeeding Schmidt was never going to be easy. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt naturally has to squeeze an awful lot into a shorter time frame with Ireland than he would have had to with Leinster, though the province’s players appeared to swiftly embrace the shift under O’Connor once the disappointment of losing Schmidt had subsided.

Trophies make Schmidt’s demands worthwhile of course, but Leinster’s whole outlook on training, preparation and everything else that goes into producing a rugby team altered with the arrival of O’Connor from Leicester.

Here was a laidback Australian, popular with the squad and a man who could enjoy a joke with anyone in the ‘environment’. Over this majorly difficult last season, senior players have publicly expressed that they like O’Connor, a sentiment backed up when the dictaphones were turned off.

O’Connor’s coaching style contrasts too, his beliefs on the game naturally differ from those of the man he succeeded at Leinster. There has been talk of players being encouraged to adhere less rigidly to pre-planned moves and structures, to get their heads up more often.

The perception of Schmidt’s time in charge was that Leinster did exactly that, but it’s fascinating to revisit their greatest successes in that era and see how much of the seemingly free-flowing flair was down to individuals putting their well-drilled roles into action perfectly.

The truth is that we saw less and less attacking quality from Leinster during O’Connor’s tenure. The clear highs were the hammering of Northampton Saints last season in Franklin’s Gardens and a clinical Pro12 final win over Glasgow at the end of that campaign.

Those performances were essentially exceptions to the rule though. O’Connor is a firm believer in his team exiting their own half swiftly, while there were few signs that the Australian was backing his players to take risks with ball in hand in opposition territory.

Matt O'Connor O'Connor struggled to come out of press conferences in a positive light as Leinster's form deteriorated. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Basic skills such as passing, tackling, rucking and communication have all declined in the last year at Leinster. It should be stressed that O’Connor is not the only one responsible for this, but he is the natural focal point.

The players should not be admonished of culpability, though it is the head man who sets the standards and leads the culture. Did his more laidback approach filter down into the players’ own standards? It’s a stretch perhaps, but Leinster were often too firm in asserting that this season was acceptable.

Stories of O’Connor slipping out of his more casual demeanour to launch expletive-ridden feedback at his players sit in contrast with those of Schmidt delivering calm, concise and withering feedback during video sessions.

Meanwhile, as Leinster’s form dipped badly this season, O’Connor often came out of his dealings with the media in a negative light. No matter what the Australian said in recent months, it was likely to be taken up the wrong way.

It’s been a clash of cultures at Leinster and despite the league success last season and the feeling of goodwill towards O’Connor from the players, there will be a sense that some of the gloom has already been lifted.

Next in the door has quite a job on their hands, but the raw materials remain in place to bring Leinster back to where they feel they belong.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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