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Saturday 22 September 2018

Mixed emotions for O'Connor as his own players bid to beat his beloved Aussies

Leinster coach Matt O'Connor
Leinster coach Matt O'Connor

LEINSTER coach is sitting on the fence

The road from Ballymore to Ballsbridge is the one less travelled, but for Leinster coach Matt O'Connor, it has made all the difference.

When the Ireland and Wallaby teams cross the whitewash tomorrow evening, they will write the latest chapter between these great rivals. And for the Leinster head coach, he will pay more than a passing interest in the respective teams' fortunes.

A proud Australian, O'Connor knows that, when the whistle blows, he will eagerly be assessing performances on both sides; such is the cross that coaches have to bear when they're apparently independent observers. When you spend so many hours trawling through footage, analysing and looking for chinks in side's armour, it's near impossible to down tools and become a spectator.

"I will enjoy Saturday's game for sure, but not as a spectator! You can never really be neutral because there are so many balls that you have to juggle in the air. But it's something that I have experience of from my time with Leicester when England played Australia at Twickenham.

"You're obviously watching the game through green-and-gold tinted glasses, but it's only natural that you want the boys you work with day-in and day-out to do well. And I was very proud to see so many of our boys play at a high standard last weekend.

"I thought that Jack (McGrath) was outstanding and what was really pleasing to see was that he took his opportunity to become a Test player and I think he'll have a really bright future at international level.

"For another debutant, Dave (Kearney), well he had a day to remember, didn't he? He has probably been our most consistent back this year at Leinster and it was great to see him carry that on to the international stage. I think that, from an Ireland perspective, it was an encouraging start to the Guinness Series and one I'm sure that Joe (Schmidt) and all of the coaches will be keen to push on with this week."

As O'Connor added, the cross-over between personnel he has previously worked with also extends to his home country.

"I have a few long-standing relationships with a good few of the Wallabies. Adam Ashley-Cooper was a kid coming through when I was back in Australia. I also know Christian Lealiifano and Matt Toomua very well as I recruited them from school to join the Brumbies. I'm also looking forward to catching up with the likes of Ben Alexander and Stephen Moore for a coffee this week.

"One of the great things about rugby is the relationships that you have and it will be good to see the guys."

Prior to his arrival last summer, O'Connor had lasting links with Ireland and he looks back with pride on his international debut, which took place on a June evening 19 years ago in Brisbane.

"When you make your international debut, it's one of the most exhilarating times in your life," he recalls. "For me it was the realisation of a dream, the only thing I remember dreaming about was playing for Australia. The fact it was against Ireland was a bonus. Even though you try to treat it as you would any other big game, it's impossible to do that.

"You want to play well, do the basics right and make a positive contribution to the team. We won 33-13 at Ballymore, so it was a nice memory. Obviously the occasion was bigger than anything I had ever experienced before and the stakes were higher, but I enjoyed the experience. It was one of the proudest days of my life.

"That day, I remember, was the first time George Gregan was involved in a Test match, Keith Wood and Niall Woods also made their debuts for Ireland. Peter Clohessy and Conor O'Shea were also in that touring party.

Since moving to Dublin a few months ago I've started to piece together some of the names from the Ireland squad that day and a lot of them went on to have hugely successful careers in the game."

And so to the main event this weekend. O'Connor does predict a tight and close affair and he believes that either side could win what promises to be a gripping encounter.

"If you look at the number of Irish Lions in the squad and when you factor in that Ireland have the recent memory of beating Australia at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, then that fear factor which might have been there before has gone.

"The great thing all Ireland sides have is the pride and passion they bring to the jersey. When you come up against an Irish team, you know you won't get anything for free.

"There's huge respect in the Australian camp for Ireland, especially when you consider the number of European medals that have been won in recent years."

We know where O'Connor's patriotic loyalties lie, but ask him which mast he is nailing his colours to leads to a careful and considered pause. Then he adds coolly with a mischievous grin: 'I'm not telling you!"

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