MATT O’CONNOR HAS hailed the input of Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner during a testing period of the provincial season.
With Leinster having been greatly affected by international call-ups recently, the side that beat Zebre 31-8 last weekend was largely second-string. While the Australian head coach is welcoming of the opportunities that are presented to fringe players this month, he admits that managing the comings and goings can be difficult.
With a “handful” of the province’s Ireland internationals set to be released for involvement in Friday night’s Pro12 clash with the Dragons, changes are likely again. Through it all, O’Connor knows he can rely on the influence of Gopperth and Kirchner.
They have both done a great job. [They are] experienced professionals who have played a lot of top end rugby and understand the dynamics of it.
“They are invaluable in these periods; tough conditions, compromised squad, that experience is huge for the rest of the guys to lean on and learn from. The pair of them, and especially Zane at the back has given us so much stability. It has made it so much easier for the team to function.”
Noel Reid is another man stepping up to the mark; the 23-year-old was named man of the match for his creative performance against the Italians last weekend. The 2007 Leinster Schools Senior Cup winner has always had rich promise, but having packed on valuable lean muscle this season, looks closer to taking the next step of progression.
O’Connor admits to having been pleasantly surprised by the inside centre, who is beginning to look more like a classic New Zealand second-five-eighth.
Reid’s form has impressed Matt O’Connor. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland.
“Noel has played really well. I didn’t know much about him before arriving at Leinster. In relation to his distribution, and what he provides the rest of the backline of the team with, he is doing a great job for us.
“It is huge to have blokes who can step in to that job when guys like Gordon D’Arcy are away. Noel has played a lot of rugby for us and played really well.”
Leinster have had a multitude of players involved in Ireland’s Six Nations matches, as well as in the wider training group over the past month. Rather than look at the situation negatively, O’Connor recognises that these periods can develop his squad.
Increased game time is an important part of that, but O’Connor also points to the increased demands placed on fringe players to push themselves mentally too.
We’ve had a lot of guys who’ve been fortunate to be in the Irish set-up this season, but it is an opportunity for the other guys. It gives them a bit of focus, it also gives them something to concentrate on in relation to not playing.
“They can look at these Test windows really positively and they understand how important it is for the squad to be really successful in this period because as we said last week, it determines whether you are in the top four or not.
“In terms of whether you are home in the semi-final or away in the semi-final, these points are massive for us and the guys understand that responsibility. By and large they look forward to it and take it with both hands.”