Injuries forcing Schmidt to rethink options
WHEN Michael Cheika left to take over at Stade Francais, it was widely accepted that his successor as Leinster coach would have a difficult challenge ahead of him.
Not merely because Cheika -- after raising the professional bar at the province and guiding them to their first Heineken Cup title -- was a tough act to follow.
There was also the perception that Cheika had coached squad leaders like Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Malcolm O'Kelly, Girvan Dempsey and Leo Cullen when they were at their peak and there would be an inevitable element of transition, complicated by injuries and increased international demands in the build-up to the World Cup.
Joe Schmidt has done exceedingly well. He rode out a difficult opening period (when five defeats from six outings saw some of the more hysterical commentators claim the New Zealander was not up to the job), and has steered the province to the business end of the Magners League and to the summit of one of the most difficult pools in Heineken Cup history.
Along the way, Schmidt has displayed an acute tactical awareness while overseeing a marked improvement in the Leinster scrum, greater innovation in Leinster back play and hugely encouraging development in younger players.
And yet, it never seems to get any easier for Schmidt. He welcomed captain Cullen back from injury in November, only to lose three Lions in his back line during Ireland's Autumn International series.
In O'Driscoll's absence, youngster Eoin O'Malley puts in a stunning display, helping to secure a bonus point away to French champions Clermont, but is then himself injured during one of Leinster's (and Irish rugby's) finest displays of the professional era.
The physicality of that contest has also left Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien on the injury table, and there is little Schmidt can do but cross his fingers and wryly reflect on his injury misfortunes, which include the retirements of John Fogarty and Ronnie McCormack, that have hampered his best efforts in his debut Leinster season.
"Fogs and Ronnie McCormack were in our original 38 for the Heineken Cup squad and out of that 38 we are down to 27 and, depending on medical clearances this week, maybe 26," noted Schmidt yesterday. "38 seemed like quite a lot of guys at the start, but it doesn't seem like that now."
Given the impact he made on his Heineken Cup debut, the injury to O'Malley is particularly unfortunate and Schmidt accepted he will probably have to bring in David Kearney on the left wing and switch Fergus McFadden to his more familiar midfield role.
"Unfortunately for Eoin O'Malley, having a fractured rib, he's almost 99pc sure he's unavailable for Saturday, which is devastating for him," said Schmidt.
"He came out of the game obviously fatigued and sore but really excited about testing himself at that level, but it's highly unlikely he'll play. If that happens, Fergus McFadden will slip into centre and Dave Kearney will take his place on the left wing."
Schmidt ruled out moving Shane Horgan to inside-centre, where he has performed for Leinster and Ireland in the past, saying that he would prefer to use his tall frame out wide, and said Isaac Boss would cover the wing positions also.
Knowing Clermont intimately from his three years working with Vern Cotter, culminating in the club's first French title, Schmidt does not expect the Top 14 champions to be any less physical than they were with home advantage in the Stade Marcel Michelin.
"I am expecting a tour de force, really," Schmidt said. "They will come over and look to physically shove us off the park. Vern put something about a disrespect thing out in the press, and I think that is them playing mind games with their own players, to get them ready to spark up to that, come over and physically out-muscle us.
"They are going to do what they are going to do anyway, so I don't see our injury problems making a hell of a lot of difference. They will just have to scout a little bit on the likes of Dave Kearney and see what he has done, and have a look maybe at what Fergus McFadden does in the midfield.
"There is a degree of uncertainty for them, as there is for us, and he assured me that he was going to turn his team over a little bit. The luxury he has is that he can bring another international or two in if he wants.
"Loic Jacquet might come out and Julien Pierre might start, or Gavin Williams might come in and Gonzalo Canale might go out or push out to centre and (Aurelien) Rougerie might go to the wing.
"He has got some fairly luxurious options that can keep us thinking about what he might come up with."
Amid all the injury woe, a major area of encouragement for Leinster is the fact that they will have such vociferous home support on Saturday and, after dealing with one of the most intimidating venues on the European circuit last weekend, Schmidt believes the Leinster fans have a significant role to play.
"It's massive. Absolutely," the coach said. "I would love to see a crowd of 45 or 50,000. This is the fulcrum of our season, to a degree.
"I know our players felt last week that the referee received a lot of pressure from the crowd. I felt that the crowd were certainly very vocal and we would love to have the reverse happen this weekend."