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O'Connor is under pressure to prove he's up to the mark

By Michael Sadlier

What with all the hype about you know who's impending departure from the game, along with the accompanying emotion for Leo Cullen's long goodbye – even though he is next season's forwards coach – it seemed appropriate that the already retired Leinster legend Isa Nacewa was up for adding to this week's feeling of nostalgia.

The current Auckland Blues mental skills coach had a wonderful five-year career at Leinster, which saw him win five trophies – three Heineken Cups and last season's double success which saw Leinster lift the Amlin Challenge Cup and the PRO12 title – and ensured that Nacewa was an integral part of first Michael Cheika and then Joe Schmidt's planning.

If anyone is qualified to wax lyrical about what made Leinster so great during the playing era of Brian O'Driscoll and Cullen then it is Nacewa, who is hoping to be in Dublin later this month should Leinster make the final – a year on from his own swansong in the PRO12 showdown with Ulster when Leinster, of course, made off with the spoils.

And though there is much expectation that Leinster can become the first side to retain the league title, the feeling this time is just not quite so upbeat.

There is more than a whiff of vulnerability in the air right now with rather more effort seemingly being put towards reminiscing on the glorious past than a desire to reflect on the future direction under new coach Matt O'Connor.

Naturally, there is plenty to be nostalgic about, what with the added loss of Joe Schmidt after last season as well, while O'Connor's first campaign has seen the once dazzling array of Leinster attack plays become rather more focused towards defensive solidity.

Even though Leinster finished top of their European pool this time around before succumbing at Toulon – going one better than Schmidt's last campaign at the Leinster helm when they failed to make the last eight, though admittedly the subsidiary competition was won in the shape of the Amlin Cup to impressively put alongside Schmidt's back-to-back Heineken Cups – the essential demand is that O'Connor has to secure a trophy to show all is well.

And with Jonathan Sexton's departure having robbed O'Connor of Leinster's crucial playmaker during what was always going to be a season of transition, the Australian had his work cut out from the start.

Thus far the coach has handled things reasonably well despite the grumblings about the decline of Leinster's back play.

A case in point is at out-half where O'Connor has flitted between Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth, with the latter getting the nod for today no doubt after Madigan's recent indifferent showing at Ravenhill.

At least Eoin Reddan – the only change from the backline last time out – is back on board at scrum-half to bring extra zip in his passing to help launch, dare we suggest it, an under-performing backline.

Seven of O'Connor's eight changes from last week's narrow win over Edinburgh are up front with the same pack which just about beat Ulster a fortnight ago at Ravenhill back in harness meaning that only skipper Jamie Heaslip is retained from last Saturday.

Sean O'Brien being benched for Rhys Ruddock is the most eye-catching call as other notables Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Martin Moore – who displaces Mike Ross – and Shane Jennings return.

It means Cullen is strangely benched as O'Connor brings in fringe player Quinn Roux to replace Mike McCarthy who has joined Richardt Strauss on the injured list. Still, reserve hooker Aaron Dundon aside, the Leinster bench yet again packs quite a punch.

They have definitely been misfiring of late, but for all that, Leinster have still kept winning and of course, history is also on their side regarding home sides and PRO12 semi-finals.

Belfast Telegraph


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