Leinster's bold approach sees them prosper
Priceless away win over Venter's 'London Boks' could pay dividends in January, writes Jim Glennon
A more than timely return to form over the past fortnight for Joe Schmidt's Leinster squad rendered the trip to Wembley to face Saracens yesterday a significantly less-daunting prospect for Leinster supporters, with their morale very much on the up, to put it mildly.
The north Londoners, under the remarkable Brendan Venter, currently provide one of the more interesting stories in northern hemisphere rugby, having come from a state of mid-table mediocrity only two seasons ago to be the surprise story of last season, eventually finishing runners-up to Leicester.
It was the classic Heineken second-round pool stage encounter -- a team beaten away from home in round one hosting one travelling on the back of an impressive home victory; witness London-Irish's experience at Ospreys' Liberty Stadium on Friday night.
For me the one overriding theme of yesterday's game was the scale of the South African presence in the match-day squads, and indeed the role of Venter.
Of the 44 players nominated for duty, nine were South African-born and there was also one Namibian; all but two of the 10 lined out in the black of Saracens. Interestingly, few, if any, of the South Africans could be dubbed 'stars' in terms of recognition-levels amongst casual fans, yet they have been fashioned into a highly cohesive and effective unit under the enigmatic Venter.
Venter, a Cape Town GP, is a formidable and fascinating character for whom I've had some admiration for a long time, to such an extent that, during my time in management at Leinster, I attempted to sign him as a player at a time when he was the fulcrum of a strong London Irish backline.
He made an immediate impact upon his appointment at Saracens close to 18 months ago by immediately informing 14 players that their contracts wouldn't be renewed. Even more eyebrows were subsequently raised by his mass recruitment from his home country, but his approach has been thoroughly vindicated by the bottom-line results.
It should also be said though, that while there is an enormous South African presence at Sarries, it has not resulted in the total exclusion of home-grown players with the likes of Alex Goode, Andy Saull and Noah Cato all progressing from academy players to promising first-team squad members under Venter's careful management.
While I've no wish to dismiss Saracens as 'London South Africans', there is one thing that could always be taken for granted with such a volume of players of that particular nationality in the squad and that was that they would be extremely tough to beat at home. Also, the intensity of the physical challenge laid down to the Leinster pack, at the scrum in particular, was to be expected.
In that sense, the selection of Cian Healy at loose-head, ahead of the Springbok Heinke van der Merwe (who already looks destined to provide far more bang for Leinster's rand than his compatriot predecessor CJ van der Linde ever did) to face Carlos Nieto at tight-head in an extremely imposing front-five was something of a surprise.
Scrummaging at this level will never be a forte of any young prop, regardless of his all-round abilities, and the stability offered in this area by such as Vvan der Merwe would have been a priority, particularly with the possibilities arising from Healy's introduction from the bench once the game has loosened up later on. Having said that, a feature of the game was the relatively small number of scrums and it's scrappy, broken nature probably facilitated the youngster.
The most talked-about selection decision, however, centred on the replacement for Brian O'Driscoll, with Fergus McFadden expected by most to deputise in the event of the great one being unable to take the field. My expectation was for a straight swap in that sense and I was pleasantly surprised to see Luke Fitzgerald given the 13 jersey, with Shane Horgan coming on to the wing.
Full marks should go to Joe Schmidt and his management team for such a positive selection, even if Fitzgerald's impact was limited prior to his injury-enforced replacement by Mc Fadden early in the second half.
By that stage, the game was crying out for someone to grab it by the scruff of the neck and lift it a level above the penalties ping-pong to which it had been reduced, with the exception of an all-too-easily conceded try. Jonny Sexton had resumed his kicking duties with the placed-ball to good effect and it was evident that all the components were in place for Leinster to move on and take the bonus point spoils.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen and try as they might, they were unable to assert themselves sufficiently; a very well-worked Sexton try gave them a lift, but they were still unable to break free. It then became an exercise in hanging in there and dogging it out, with a late exchange of penalties introducing real excitement at the death.
They held on though, and now return home with that priceless commodity of an away win in the bag, a resource that should bring dividends in January, with the prize of a passage to the spring knockout stages.