Schmidt refuses to rule Kearney out of equation
EVEN on this of all weeks, the national interest is having its effect on provincial ambitions.
If Rob Kearney was playing for an English or French club tomorrow, the likelihood is that he would be pressed into action. He came through a full contact session yesterday at UCD, and the feeling around Leinster appears to be that the Ireland and Lions full-back could play if needed.
But this is the first round of the Heineken Cup, not the final, and Joe Schmidt admits that he may have to take the long view when making his team selection for the visit of Exeter Chiefs.
This clash may a bit too soon for Kearney, whose return would be a bonus for Leinster, but his availability for the internationals in November is absolutely critical to Ireland's chances of success.
"Whatever we do, we will be doing what is best for Rob Kearney, because we know there are some important games coming up," Schmidt admitted.
"You don't want to be unrealistic. If Rob is not 100pc for us this Saturday, hopefully, he will be 100pc next Saturday. You don't want to shoot yourself in the foot -- and you're keeping an eye on the November internationals as well.
"With the ranking points available in those matches, you have got to be balanced about it and you have also got to have faith in your squad.
"We have got Isa Nacewa and Ian Madigan who can play full-back. We went through the entire back-end of a Heineken campaign, after Rob had played the first two games, two years ago with Isa at full-back and doing a pretty sound job."
Leinster's injury bulletins should always be taken with a pinch of salt -- they like to keep their cards close to their chests out at their new complex at Belfield -- but Schmidt is not ruling Kearney out just yet.
"Rob got through training, but I'd say he is still not a certainty by any means. Our plan would be not to run him in the captain's run (today) so that he might be ready for the game. We wouldn't want to have him stiff or sore going into the game.
"I'm quietly confident, but it is not something we'll know about until he turns up (this morning). If he gets any new bleeding or discomfort we may have to rule him out."
The Louth man may not play, but other frontliners look ready for action. Brian O'Driscoll, Leo Cullen, Isa Nacewa and Gordon D'Arcy are expected to be pressed into service, while Kevin McLaughlin appears to have won his race for fitness.
Given the paucity of options available to Schmidt in the back-row this week, McLaughlin's availability would be a major boost.
"He took a full part in training, including the contact stuff," Schmidt confirmed. "He came through that with a smile on his face and it would be pretty hard to stop Kev from being involved somewhere."
This is the third season out of the last four that Leinster have entered the competition as defending champions.
Openside Shane Jennings admits that there are differences between how they have been handling the crown this year and when they first won it in 2009.
"You definitely learn from past experiences," he said.
"The first time we won it, there definitely was an awful lot more of bringing the cup around the province and to various functions, etc, etc.
"Maybe sometimes we overdid it, maybe sometimes we didn't overdo it. There's a big focus on this time round, and Joe said it last season when we went over to Montpellier: 'We're not actually defending a trophy, it's not ours for the season -- last season was when we had it and we enjoyed those couple of weeks'.
"If you go around thinking that just because you got to the knockout stages or got to a final, you're entitled to it... No, it's a new slate and you've got to try and win your first game and build some momentum."