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Matt O'Connor out to hand fans a final hurrah

By David Kelly

As the belatedly emerging sun bakes his HQ, if Matt O'Connor is feeling the heat in trying to emulate the most successful Leinster coach of the professional era, his continually breezy persona betrays the merest suggestion.

"The heaviness is about the fact it's a semi-final," he demurs, seeking comfort in the collective focus, rather than personal spotlight.

"The guys have worked hard all year to get to this point. The stakes are high and they know you don't get another chance if you get it wrong.

"With that goes an element of pressure. The fact we're at home and there's the emotional attachment around Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll, it's a motivator as opposed to a pressurised situation for us.

"The guys are really excited about going out there on Saturday night in front of their home fans."

Leinster accumulated a pair of Heineken Cup titles under Joe Schmidt, as well as last season's Amlin and Pro12 double, before the Kiwi with the magic coaching touch led Ireland to this season's Six Nations title.

His shadow continues to loom large upon his old patch, notwithstanding the arguably more significant losses of play-making duo Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa.

If the expectations were suffocating upon arrival, the grumblings of discontent from some supporters, despite the side at this stage at least emulating last year's domestic achievements, hints at the coruscating nature of the demands placed upon the man chosen to succeed the all-conquering Schmidt.

"That's what you sign on for," he deflects. "There's no point talking about it. I've been in the Leicester environment for five years, I was at the Brumbies before that.

"That's why you coach, because you want to be at this stage where the stakes are so high and everything matters."

So it's a healthy expectation? "I think so, yeah."

As always, despite their record in accumulating more points than previous sides and reaching a Heineken Cup quarter-final –whereas last year's team failed to emerge from their pool – improvement is always possible.

"We probably haven't produced what we wanted to achieve at different stages," O'Connor (left) admits, more than once alluding to struggles against 14-man Ulster in Ravenhill, as well as last week's typically pallid effort against Edinburgh.

"We were a bit disappointed," says O'Connor, whose team won both those games, even if not producing anywhere near their best, or at least what their best used to be.

"We didn't take the chances on offer at Ravenhill and there's probably one or two that stick out – some of it refereeing and some of it our pass execution.

"But there are issues in and around that and the guys are working really hard to fix that. It's not very far away and once the stakes get a little bit higher, you'd like to think that we'll get a little bit better.

"At the same time, it is about winning games. The thing that doesn't get referred to – and it is a fantastic opportunity for the squad – is that for massive chunks of the season you're without 20 blokes.

"It makes it quite difficult to build on the continuity aspects.

"But, you know, we're winning games. We're hard to beat. We're top of the league with a semi-final at the weekend. There are worse teams to be coaching."

Belfast Telegraph


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