WHEN JOE SCHMIDT arrived for his first regular meeting with the press as head coach of Leinster Rugby, he did so with a constant flow of water dripping from his coat onto his bare legs as he stood in the middle of a biblical downpour by the side of a wide open field that passed for their training area in UCD.
This summer’s weather may be familiar to that time, but it’s fair to say that things have changed since Schmidt has been and gone.
Yesterday, just a few hundred metres from that spot, Matt O’Connor wore a similar pair of standard issue shorts as Schmidt did back in 2010. But he was sitting in the luxury of the upstairs boardroom – not to the displeasure of the waiting fourth estate.
“There’s not too many things wrong with the place to be honest,” says O’Connor without the comedic tone you might expect.
As first impressions go, describing yourself for a line of TV cameras is a tough job, but the former ACT Brumbie gave a humble laugh before going back to his memory bank for what he could have said to Mick Dawson to land this job earlier this year.
“I would be pretty honest and robust in my approach. I would imagine some of my stronger skill-sets would be in the analysis side of things in creating a game-plan that suits our guys that maximises the advantages that we have in our group.”
Matching skill-sets with a plan of attack will be a theme that O’Connor will return to this season. Just as those of us outside of his team will struggle to avoid comparisons between his Leinster and Schmidt’s.
In this regard, O’Connor’s job has been made all the more difficult by his predecessor effectively becoming his superior. At Leicester he was at times a vocal critic of Stuart Lancaster’s selections policy, saying the England side was being picked not to win, but to avoid defeat.
‘Everyone on the same page’
Under the unified umbrella of Schmidt and the IRFU, however, the latest addition to Ireland’s top five coaches is confident that the relationship will be a fruitful one for all involved.
“We had a day with Carton House with all the coaches a couple of weeks ago. Just Joe trying to get everyone on the same page and to make sure there is that high level of communication across the provinces from the IRFU. I think it will be a positive relationship and hopefully we can all work together for the best of both parties.”
Working for the best of both parties means helping out the national side. O’Connor spoke about the need for succession planning, not only in the immediate cases of Jonathan Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, but also further down to line.
“We need to try and get better,” says O’Connor. “We’ve got to develop that next tier of guys to fill the void that has been left by some really quality players. That is going to be an ongoing issue for the group.
‘Understand the standard’
“If you look at the senior guys who will be moving on over the next 12-24 months there’s going to be some significant challenges in experience if nothing else. It’s about trying to make sure that next tier have the necessary skills and understand the standard that goes with wearing the Leinster shirt.”
In some ways, this is an easy job for O’Connor; he speaks of improvements in terms of “one percenters” and of keeping a positive attitude in the squad.
In other ways, it’s an impossible job. Fail, and he’ll have made vinegar with Schmidt’s vintage collection. Win a European Cup and he’ll just about be matching expectation.
“I don’t think it’s a disadvantage,” he says of the silverware that Leinster fans have become accustomed to.
“I’ve been lucky enough to be at Leicester who have a similar culture in that regard and it’s something that drives everyone to be better. If the expectation is really, really high then everyone understands that and everyone has to aspire to that. And I think if managed right it’s a huge positive.”
Joe Schmidt embraces the elements in his early days as Leinster coach. ©INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan
An impossible job can bring lightning quick judgement from some. Even Schmidt, after wet week in the job, found his head being called for on a platter after a run of one win in four early outings.
With his Lions stars having only just returned to training on Monday, it’s little wonder that O’Connor was urging caution as he targeted a first Celtic League opening round win since 2007.
“There’s always a certain amount of adjustment that goes with a new system. A lot of the skill-set isn’t going to move that much. A lot of the things that have been successful will stay in place.
“So patience is important, but we’ll be trying to win the first game and we aren’t looking on into the season. We need to make sure we start in the right place attitudinally against Scarlets over there, Friday night in a couple of weeks.”
A good start is always nice, but by no means essential.