Saturday 10 December 2016

Schmidt a down-to earth, liberating influence

Appointment looks very likely to bear fruit in first season, writes Peter Bills

Published 01/05/2011 | 05:00

Joe Schmidt is steeped in rugby. He has transported his many qualities to Dublin and the Leinster camp. Irish rugby is fortunate to have him and part of the reason for that is the wise decision of the Leinster hierarchy to choose him as Michael Cheika's replacement as coach.

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That decision now looks very likely to bear fruit in Schmidt's first season. Leinster will be favourites to land a second Heineken Cup in three years, whether they meet Northampton or Perpignan in the final on May 21.

Schmidt offers pragmatism, complete conviction and an endearing, no-nonsense type of approach. Yet somehow, even at the same time, he seems a liberating influence, able to put a light hand on the tiller, whilst never allowing misunderstanding as to his convictions.

He greeted yesterday's semi-final win over the defending champions Toulouse with a response that was rooted in practicalities. "The result is all that matters," he said. "We are in the final and can book the flights to Cardiff. In a sense, it was one of those days when you think maybe we could have done a little better. But we're through, that is the thing."

Schmidt attributed much of Leinster's victory to the hard road they have taken to the final. "We deserve to be where we are, we can justify it because we have beaten lots of good teams. We have beaten the top three [Stade Toulouse, Racing Metro and Clermont Auvergne] in France and the top two [Saracens and Leicester] in England.

"We haven't had anything easy and the final will be another step up. So we have to respond to that challenge and start better than we did today. We will also need to keep our tempo better than today."

That was classic Schmidt; attention to detail, a critical eye and a down-to-earth philosophy. But you can bet he will have let his players enjoy a cracking night, last night.

Even at such a moment, as Leinster celebrated another appearance in the final, their coach was outlining what we he wanted to do on a long-term basis in Dublin.

"One of the best things for us is that we have signed on again a lot of the players you saw out there today. Whatever we can construct this year hopefully will provide a platform for the years to come."

Schmidt mentioned players like Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and of course Brian O'Driscoll in this category. O'Driscoll is and remains a key man in his coach's plans. What exactly does he bring to the Leinster cause, the coach was asked.

"He gives a really good controlling influence out on the field. He is still as dynamic as ever and when there is a little space and opportunity he has a great nose for the line."

Indeed, it was O'Driscoll's try close to the hour mark that turned this match decisively Leinster's way. Converted by Sexton, who also landed six penalty goals, O'Driscoll's try pushed them out to 29-20 and a Leinster side demonstrating such hunger and commitment was never going to let slip that sort of advantage in a tight game.

O'Driscoll admitted it was a physically enervating affair. "It was pretty intense, very close to a Test match in that respect. There were a lot of Test players on the field and that is the intensity that calibre of player brings.

"It takes an awful lot to get to a semi-final of the Heineken Cup and the current champions were not going to roll over. They fought to the death and gave themselves a chance to win it. But we had a tough pool and a tough knock-out schedule so perhaps we were well prepared.

"But just because we are in the final doesn't mean you expect anything. We will have our work cut out against either Northampton or Perpignan. But reaching the final is another great day for the supporters to look forward to. Overall, we were satisfied with the performance and very pleased with the result."

The tide of power in Irish rugby is shifting irrevocably eastwards. Yesterday confirmed the point decisively. Munster's defeat in the semi-final of the Challenge Cup at Limerick was followed by this Leinster win.

There is no doubt that Leinster's sheer hunger, desire and commitment surprised and ultimately stifled Toulouse, whose Coach Guy Noves conceded: "Leinster were very strong in their rucking and that was one of the areas where we fell short. We tried to play at all times but some of our ball-carriers became isolated and Leinster knew how to capitalise on our mistakes.

"They deserved their win. Naturally I am very disappointed but we were taught a lesson for the future here."

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