'Emphatic, but it's a little too early to get carried away'
Published 18/12/2011 | 05:00
This is a good time to take stock as Leinster face into the second half of a season in which Leo Cullen's side will launch assaults on two fronts.
Their march through last season's Heineken Cup had something of an inevitability about it, but the same can't be said of the current campaign. Sure, last night's win was emphatic and the side rediscovered the try line, but it's a little early to be getting carried away.
On their way to last season's final, they dispatched two of the big four, Leicester and Toulouse, in home quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. That home advantage is so important that it's difficult to benchmark teams at this point, particularly with the varying quality levels in the pools.
A major issue for Leinster is the absence of the talismanic Brian O'Driscoll; few, if any, teams in world rugby can afford to lose a player of his calibre for an entire campaign. I'd venture to suggest, however, that an even bigger loss as the season progresses will be Nathan Hines.
Highly respected within the trade as an outstanding scrummager, he was, and indeed remains, a real mongrel of a second-row forward -- someone who everyone on a team loves to have alongside them in the trenches.
A vacuum has been created by his departure to Clermont, and while Devin Toner has shown glimpses of potential, he has yet to put in the sustained period of strong performances to suggest he can deliver in the white heat of knockout European rugby.
South African Steven Sykes was tipped as a good signing, with the potential to become Irish-qualified through residency, but, for a number of reasons, he hasn't been in a position to get himself up to speed and develop any sort of form or partnership with Cullen. His fellow summer recruit Damien Browne has made a number of appearances, most notably in the games at Montpellier and Bath in typical Schmidt away selections in Europe, but has failed to impress.
The reverse is the case in midfield where, in O'Driscoll's absence, the younger players have stepped up to the mark. In fact, however costly his absence may be in the short term, it could well turn out to be a positive in the longer term for both Leinster and Irish rugby with Eoin O'Malley and Fergus McFadden enjoying opportunities to grow into the team.
When comparing Leinster to Toulouse, Munster and Leicester, the set-piece is vital and the champions now have few worries in this area, with hooker Seán Cronin, and tightheads Jamie Hagan and Nathan White added to last year's stock.
Leinster are well placed to defend their title. Minus O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, and Hines, they've performed strongly without exactly lighting up the tournament and while they'd prefer to be scoring more tries, it's not a bad position to be in. Naturally, the luck of the draw is always a major influence, but Schmidt will be content.
Any analysis of Leinster's prospects must also take into account the most likely opposition. I have been impressed with Toulouse. There's a quiet determination about them that hasn't been evident in previous years, particularly on the road, as Connacht and Harlequins have discovered.
Maybe it's their displacement by Leinster in the rankings, or the possibility of some team other than themselves achieving three tournament wins in four years, but never before have they made their ambitions so obvious so early.
The big four of Leinster, Toulouse, Munster and Leicester have won 10 of the 16 tournaments to date and only two finals have taken place without at least one of them participating. This year, however, both Munster and Leicester are in transition and will need home quarter-finals, and more than their share of luck, if they're to secure outright victory. Outside that four, Saracens and Clermont appear most likely to break through, but history is against a team winning without recent experience of playing in the last four.
All in all, Toulouse represent the best value. They appear intent on nailing down a home quarter-final, with Leinster, Munster and Saracens most likely to enjoy the same advantage. The champions, however, will need a replacement for Hines if they're to emulate Leicester as back-to-back winners.
Sunday Indo Sport