In the first of a two-part interview, Leinster TV sat down with head coach Matt O’Connor to look back over the highlights and key moments of 2014. Watch part two tomorrow when we will look ahead to the second half of the season and the year to come.

Speaking to Leinster TV this week, Matt O’Connor took a step back from preparations for Saturday’s game against Castres to reflect and look back over the previous 12 months and indeed his first full season as Leinster coach.

The highlight was an obvious one. The PRO12 Grand Final in a sun-drenched RDS Arena last May saw Leinster run out 34-12 winners over Glasgow Warriors. 

“I think the highlight of the season was definitely the (PRO12) Final,” the head coach said, speaking to Leinster TV.

“A packed RDS, fantastic day and we probably saved our best rugby of the season for that day, which was very, very pleasing.”

Leinster are unbeaten at the RDS since O’Connor became head coach and the atmosphere in the stadium is something he sees as being crucial to that. 

“The RDS has a fantastic atmosphere – the family feel and all generations there together. It’s pretty positive – they enjoy their rugby, they like to see entertaining, attacking rugby, and they bring that attitude to the contest.”

As well as achieving on the field, one of the key targets off the field last year was to retain some of the leading players in the squad such as the captain, Jamie Heaslip, and vice-captains, Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien, who all signed new contracts with Leinster in 2014.

“One of the huge positives of my time here has been our ability to retain those world class guys. Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney signing on for long-term deals says a lot about the environment, says a lot about Leinster. Together with a lot of very, very talented young guys in the environment that we’ve been able to maintain, that will ensure the growth and strength of the province for a very, very long time.”

matt o'connor jamie heaslip

While senior players signing on was a huge positive off the pitch, on the pitch, injuries stalked the Leinster coach and squad. But that offered opportunities to younger players; opportunities that they have grasped with both hands.

“The reality of it is that the only way you can get that experience is by doing it. It’s no different to any other endeavour in life. You have to actually be in there and doing it before you can actually make an assessment on how good or bad, or what things you need to improve and what things are going well. It’s given us the ability to evaluate some of those guys, as players, as leaders, as contributors to the environment. 

“You want guys to be training week-on-week with the guys that they’re going to play with and then the preparation that goes into the performance at the weekend you want to build on that over a couple of weeks, but just due to circumstance, whether it be player management issues or injury, we haven’t had the ability to do that – disappointing because you want to try and get better game-on-game, week-on-week. There were stages where it was put on the Band-Aids, patch us up and go out there and do enough to get a result, and that makes it difficult to grow your game.”

While acknowledging the high expectations of the supporters, a welcome expectation, O’Connor says that the expectation within the squad is greater still.

“The expectation’s positive. However the expectation from the wider community is never as great as the expectation in the environment. It’s always going to be there, that’s the reality of it, but it’s a little bit short-sighted in the sense that you’re not really comparing apples for apples. It’s very, very dangerous to compare season to season because the dynamics are so different: the opposition, the way the game’s gone. There’s so many different factors that contribute to winning and losing in professional sport. I think people are entitled to their opinion but you’d like to have a little bit better clarity and understanding of some of the dynamics at times.”

Watch the full interview on Leinster TV to hear more from Matt on the key learnings from last season’s European campaign, the retirement of Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen and the changes to the coaching team over the summer. 

Look out for the second part of the interview tomorrow which will focus on the second half of the season, the challenges ahead in 2015 and, of course, the return of Johnny Sexton. 

Click here to watch the full interview

Leinster face Castres in the Champions Cup this Saturday in the RDS Arena. Click here to get your ticket for the game