McCall hails 'top-quality' Leinster as the real deal
Saracens coach praises Blues' slick attack but Schmidt still wants more after six-try rampage
Published 17/01/2011 | 05:00
As Sean O'Brien advanced to collect his man-of-the-match award at the RDS on Saturday, he had to negotiate a particularly large puddle of water with a deft leap.
The only surprise was that he didn't walk on it.
Expect news this week that will reward him with an IRFU contract worthy of his contemporary status as the form back-row in this country.
That even Jamie Heaslip is now publicly questioning his indispensability indicates the extraordinary impact being made by the Tullow tyro; truly, he must form a third of Ireland's back-row in Rome next month.
His performance, amid a marauding back-row display, was one of just several facets of a romp that confirmed Leinster as a leading contender to collect the Heineken Cup for the second time in three years.
From Isa Nacewa, the most delectable attacking player currently operating in this hemisphere, to a pair of props operating at the peak of their powers and, propelling the whole enterprise, a seemingly effortless pivot in Jonny Sexton, Leinster boast magnificent strengths throughout.
Their most dangerous enemy, it would seem, certainly based on the evidence of a sloppy third quarter that invited Saracens into a contest they had hitherto snubbed, could be allowing themselves to become intoxicated by the giddy expectations now warmly cuddling their supporters.
A quarter-final place is now assured; Friday's trip to Paris will dangle the significant prize of a home quarter-final that, should Aviva Fever be replicated, could well be a seven-figure money-spinner.
"I'm a realist, you can live in the illusion that the media can create and love your own press," said Schmidt who, laughably, had to endure a pundit calling for him to be drummed out of the country before a Heineken Cup ball had been kicked this season.
"Live the reality and keep your feet on the ground because if you lift your feet off the ground you're very easy to carry backwards. And there's a few guys at Racing who will do just that to us next week. I don't believe Racing will offer anything on a plate to us; we're going to have to have to go over there and take what we can get."
With the incomparable O'Brien in their ranks -- also, a special mention to young Dominic Ryan, playing his 14th game while still languishing on an Academy contract -- it is difficult to see them being forced to take a backward step in Paris.
"I'm pretty sure we'll get some good news about Seanie in the very near future," said Schmidt. "I'm not sure what it's going to cost Leinster or the IRFU but he looks pretty good value for money at the moment. His energy -- he's so dynamic that he just inevitably has an impact.
"He is abrasive, he does carry with a real energy. The rough edges contribute to who he is and those little bits of subtlety he has can surprise teams and it does offer us a little bit of space when he does offload."
The back-row and backline shared the scoring honours but every Leinster try featured significant contributions from backs and forwards in unison and each score featured at least one offload.
Michael Cheika won the Heineken Cup by affirming Leinster's pragmatism while reining in, though not entirely suffocating, the province's flair and invention. Schmidt has allowed his team off the leash while maintaining the integrity of set-piece; it is an intoxicating cocktail which fires the type of stunning potency as witnessed on Saturday.
"They've a very good set-piece, their scrum's very strong now, as is their line-out, they are as good defensively as they have been in past years but their attacking has gone to a new level under Joe."
So says Mark McCall, the subdued Saracens coach whose side, so exalted within the confines of little England, have patently failed to make the step up to the mark on the European stage, like so many of their predecessors save the obvious exceptions of Wasps and Leicester.
"They're the real deal, they've got quality across the board, they've strength in depth, they've got some experienced players but some unbelievably good young players coming through as well.
"I just think they have threats all over the park. Joe's very clever, it's not just a wide threat or a backline threat because if you get too wide in your defensive spacing they've got power runners to get between defenders, they've got an offloading game, angles of run, angles of support.
"It's really across the board, they're a top-quality attacking team and probably the best side we've analysed this year."
Still, Schmidt was annoyed at the sloppiness that allowed Saracens an unlikely foothold in the match; he will also have been concerned at the form of Luke Fitzgerald, who strikes one as desperately scratching for his game.
Schmidt's decision to initially prefer Fergus McFadden was justified; the Kildare man was forced to shift inside when Gordon D'Arcy cried off with a calf strain.
"I feel for Luke a little bit because it was only this morning that he knew for sure that he was in," pointed out Schmidt. "It's a little bit hard to do your preparation from one game against Ospreys at full-back and then slot in on the wing. He's just trying to find his feet.
"It is pretty tough and Luke will take three or four games and the benefit there could be for Ireland if he gets three games under his belt there because he'll be starting to hit his straps and I think you'll see the real Luke. I thought he was a little below himself today but he's a class player."
Schmidt wouldn't confirm whether Fitzgerald would play at full-back next Friday, in what would be his last possible outing before filling that jersey for Declan Kidney. It was a minor concern on a day when even the much-criticised Clint Newland finally shaped up. Schmidt, however, is taking nothing for granted.
"I thought we put some really good things together this afternoon," he said, "but we were a little bit untidy with some things and I think that could really hurt us."
Leinster -- I Nacewa; S Horgan (E O'Malley 60), B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 69), E Reddan (I Boss 66); C Healy (H van der Merwe 66), R Strauss, M Ross (C Newland 66); L Cullen, N Hines (D Toner 60); D Ryan, S Jennings (K McLaughlin 66), S O'Brien.
Saracens -- N Mordt; D Strettle (N Cato 64), M Tagicakibau (G Henson 33), B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 52); R Gill, S Brits (J George 66), C Nieto (P du Plessis 61); S Borthwick (J Saunders 78), H Wyvan (H Smith 40); K Brown, A Saull (J Melck 52), E Joubert.
Ref -- R Poite (Fra).