Chiefs primed for an ambush, warns Schmidt
Published 19/01/2013 | 05:00
Leinster's Heineken Cup narrative in recent times has been quite the rollercoaster ride. By tomorrow evening, we will know whether their latest escapade will result in them crashing to earth with a deadening thump or, like the fabled damsel in distress on the railroad, somehow escaping the clutches of calamity.
They began this campaign mired in mediocrity; now they seek to end it marvelling in the miraculous.
Should Leinster fail their mission improbable this weekend – an audacious assignment that will owe as much to events elsewhere as it will to what happens in Exeter – they will have completed a remarkable lurch from their towering achievement last May.
Back then, Leinster had matched Leicester's masterful feat in winning back-to-back Heineken Cup titles.
Less than a year later, they are desperately scratching to avoid becoming only the second club side to be eliminated as champions before the knock-out stages (after Wasps, who performed the trick twice).
For a few hours, at least, regrets, reminiscence and retribution can be put on hold.
Armed belatedly with a full-strength side, now even the weather seeks to mock their scramble for the five points they most assuredly need to have a hope of qualifying as one of the two best-placed runners-up.
It is the second in a two-pronged bonus-point quest that could yet keep their hopes of an unlikely hat-trick title tilt alive.
Last weekend, they completed phase one with a five-try success against the Scarlets when, it seemed, Leinster contrived to cast off all pre-match planning as the Welsh side caved in earlier than expected.
This brave Chiefs side, in their first Heineken Cup campaign and parading before their home faithful, will not be as accommodating.
Last week, instead of creating scoreboard pressure with penalty kicks in the age-old 3-6-9 manner as had been planned, Leinster refused the posts and mauled their opponents to death.
Physical intimidation in this manner will be the only method of weakening Exeter's resolve from the first whistle and Leinster must seek to play with a vicious intensity to utterly numb the home side.
Momentum will be their premier ally this evening and, with a surfeit of ball-carrying expertise at their disposal and a swathe of strike runners lying in plundering wait, Leinster will seek to pounce early and often.
Allowing the home side to feel as if they are in an even contest could be fatal to Leinster's ambitions.
Exeter have a more than decent pack and, if asked to perform on a gluey surface, they will relish the task of getting down and dirty to frustrate the aristocrats.
"The last time we played them we made over 160 tackles," warns Schmidt.
"They keep the ball for long periods, they keep great width and a lot structure in their game, they reload into attacking positions really well and so they are difficult to combat.
"So to score a lot of points against them is difficult because if you give them the ball, you don't get it back for long periods quite often."
Leinster have rotated a third of their team, and each change arguably makes them stronger still, beginning with the obvious boost of a fully fit Brian O'Driscoll.
Richardt Strauss is also named in the starting line-up after missing the last month with an ankle injury, while Sean O'Brien has recovered from illness to join Kevin McLaughlin in the back-row.
Eoin Reddan's return at scrum-half in place of Isaac Boss is the fifth change from the side that started round five.
Exeter coach Rob Baxter makes two changes in his back division where injuries rule out Phil Dollman and Gonzalo Camacho, who are replaced by Sireli Naqelevuki and Irish international Ian Whitten.
In the pack Aussie international Dean Mumm is given the nod over James Hanks in the second-row.
"It would be a fantastic achievement if we could finish with a win, primarily because of the pressure Leinster are under to come here and win and chase a bonus point," says Baxter.
"They will be coming here full-on, which is good for us, and the kind of scenario we want to play in.
"I don't want us to be playing in a dead rubber of a game because you don't learn too much from those types of games.
"What we need to do is learn to cope with the intensity, like that of last week in Clermont.
"This has been a tough group for us this season, but we've won two out of five games so far, and I would love us to say at the end we've won three out of six.
"To get a statistic like that, especially in our first season in the Heineken Cup, would be a fantastic achievement and something for us to build from."
Exeter may be nine-point outsiders, but with so much at stake for the visitors, it would be reckless for Leinster to disregard such a potent physical force, particularly after their complacency almost undid the champions last October.
"They resource their rucks really well and have guys who are very efficient in there, the likes of Tom Johnson, Richard Baxter and James Scaysbrook," adds Schmidt.
"Even up front they have guys who are quite mobile and skilful and out the back, with their counter-attack threat and ability to move the ball, they are extremely dangerous."
Quite simply, Leinster must eliminate the potential for that danger to arise by unleashing as much physical intimidation as is legally permissible, demonstrating to the dogged home side that they can operate at a level and intensity beyond the Englishmen's reach.
Leinster have dipped into these reserves many, many times before on a glorious procession that has earned them so much worthwhile distinction in Europe, never more so than in the unforgettable 2011 final.
Those muscle memories will propel them this evening. It may be to their eternal regret that the destination will remain unknown until some time on Sunday evening.
For that, they will only have themselves to blame.
Exeter – L Arscott; I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson, K Barrett; B Moon, N Clark, H Tui; T Hayes (capt), D Mumm; T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Reps: J Yeandle, C Rimmer, C Mitchell, J Hanks, B White, W Chudley, I Mieres, N Sestaret.
Leinster – R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Reps: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, M Bent, R Ruddock, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, F McFadden.
Ref – R Poite (France)
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