‘Fifth isn’t a disgrace but fans need clarity in what’s acceptable and what’s realistic’

FORMER LEINSTER HEAD coach Matt O’Connor has backed Leo Cullen as his successor but admits expectations will need to be managed.

The Australian left Leinster by ‘mutual consent’ in May after two years in charge of the province.

A deterioration of the team’s performances, particularly in the Guinness Pro12, gave rise to a prevailing sense of discontent among supporters and O’Connor parted company with Leinster with twelve months remaining on his contract.

Speaking to the Michael Corcoran on Game On on RTÉ 2fm, the 44-year-old insisted he had no regrets from his time in Ireland but admitted last season’s results weren’t good enough.

“The results this year probably weren’t as good as we would have liked in the league and there was a lot of frustrations with went with the season,” he said. “But it’s about making the positives out of it and moving forward.

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Leinster suffered an extra-time defeat to the French side in the European Champions Cup semi-final but failed to qualify for the Pro12 play-offs, finishing fifth after a disjointed campaign.

The pressure on O’Connor increased as the year wore on. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

O’Connor lamented the spate of injuries he was forced to contend with early in the season and then the availability, or lack of it, of his international players for large chunks of the year.

“We had a pretty disruptive campaign across the whole league,” he continued. “We had injuries at the start of the season and then it gets broken up with the international schedule.

“To come fifth is no disgrace but the expectation is higher than that and we’re disappointed with that. We would have backed ourselves if we had of got in that top four to go on and push for a title.”

The former Leicester Tigers coach assumed the reins from Joe Schmidt in 2o13 and enjoyed instant success as he delivered the Pro12 title in his first season.

But results, and performances, went downhill thereafter as Leinster finished 13 points adrift of eventual winners Glasgow in 2014/15 -their worst league finish since finishing eighth a decade ago.

“There was a lot of talk throughout the season in relation to how we were playing and were we performing and what sort of form we were in but every team we played knew how dangerous we were and that’s credit to the group.

Jimmy Gopperth was one player who came under the spotlight alongside O’Connor. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I wouldn’t change anything,” O’Connor added. “There was a lot of changes in the back room and we lost a lot of significant leaders, as we did out of the changing room, and there was always going to be a transitional period for Leinster.”

As the grumblings among supporters began to increase, O’Connor’s position came under the spotlight. Many quarters questioned his style of play with Leinster’s performances tapering off as the season came to a close but he is adamant the personal criticism levelled at him was unmerited.

“We spoke a lot about trying to ignore the distractions and the noise from outside and focus on the positives inside,” he said of the pressure from fans and media. “We managed that but maybe the noise got a little too loud in the end.”

Leo Cullen has taken charge on an interim basis as the attention turns to preparing for next season. On the former second-row’s coaching credentials, O’Connor said there ‘aren’t many better blokes for the job’.

“Yeah, definitely. There’s nobody that knows more about Leinster rugby than Leo Cullen.

Cullen was forwards coach last year and is been tipped to take the main job. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“From my perspective, I certainly wish him all the best. Does he want it? Is it perfect timing? No it’s not, but I think, certainly if you weighed up all the pros and cons, there aren’t too many blokes better to do the job.”

Cullen was an integral part of the Leinster side, under the guidance of Schmidt and Michael Cheika, that lifted three European Cups in the space of four years. The province’s fans have been spoilt with success of late and O’Connor believes they need to temper expectations.

O’Connor says he and his family will now return to Australia after spending seven seasons in Europe.

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