Schmidt calling on survival instincts
Calm before the storm, breath before the plunge ... take your pick -- Leinster's final media engagement before tomorrow's date with Heineken Cup destiny was a paradoxical mix of reflective excitement.
For players and management, the days, hours and minutes before defining contests such as this clash with Northampton are the best, and worst, part of the job. The sense of anticipation wages war with worry and foreboding as the clock crawls towards kick-off and, while the Leinster contingent painted a pretty relaxed picture yesterday, the Cardiff buzz could not be entirely quelled.
It has been a remarkable season for Joe Schmidt, who stands on the brink of an unprecedented Magners-Heineken double in his first head coach role, and the New Zealander was typically unassuming when asked what his goals were at the start of the campaign when Leinster struggled to get up and running.
"Just to survive," admitted Schmidt. "Not to be sacked in the first two months. We sat down at the start of the season and, really our goals even then were performance-based. They weren't result- based, they were more performance- based -- we just wanted to say 'right, this is how we would like to play, this is how we would like our supporters to enjoy the way that we play and let's try to construct our game so that we enjoy what we are doing as well'."
That goal has unquestionably been achieved, with Leinster playing the most entertaining brand of rugby in Europe and the players revelling in the spirit of attacking innovation.
But with injury issues clouding their preparations this week, there is a collective survival imperative also as Northampton (who make up in bulk and ferocity what they lack in subtlety) guaranteed to attempt to throw Leinster off their game with an early onslaught.
They have back-three rapiers in Ben Foden and Chris Ashton, but it's the bludgeoning abilities of their forwards and midfield that most define them and Schmidt has the height of respect for their Irish inside-centre James Downey and coaching counterpart Jim Mallinder.
"James Downey just does not put a foot wrong," said Schmidt. "You're always up for your first mistake so let's hope he makes one on Saturday, but he's such a big, strong lad, he gives them such a solid target in the middle of the field.
"And I think they have got a really good coach. Jim Mallinder has done a really good job with Northampton. With Dorian West there as well, they have got a real edge to them and there are a lot of comparisons being made in the last week with the Leicester way and he has brought those elements as well. There is the clarity in what they do and they don't try to depart too much from their core -- and at their core, what they do is very, very good."
Captain Leo Cullen spent two years in the rugby citadel of Leicester and believes the Tigers' close rivals are cut from the same cloth.
"The best thing for them was when they got relegated -- since they came back up, Mallinder and Dorian West came in and they had their plan," he said.
"They have come on in leaps and bounds and have a really good mix. They have some experienced players, but they have brought through a lot of really quality young players too. There are a few (English) clubs run along sustainable models and Northampton are one of them."
Though far from quivering in their seats, both coach and captain are relishing the extra edge and the chance to bring an arduous 10 months to a fulfilling conclusion.
"The season can be a bit of a slog at times and when it comes to this stage of the season there is a real air of excitement. Certainly I'm nervous. I have been nervous all week -- as you get older you get more nervous," said Cullen.
"We are all energised by the challenge we have got in front of us and the opportunity," added Schmidt. "You don't want miss a minute of it."