Tuesday 25 April 2017

Schmidt signals his intentions

Leinster's quest to become only the second team in Heineken Cup history to retain the trophy gathers momentum in Glasgow today when a bonus-point victory will surely guarantee them a home quarter-final place.

Leinster's cause has been greatly advantaged this season by one of the easiest draws they've ever had. Only in their opening game in Montpellier have they been stretched. The challenges offered at the RDS in November by today's opposition, along with those of Bath before Christmas, were underwhelming to say the least, and were brushed aside with ease.

These pool circumstances are mere background, however, to today's challenge, one of the more interesting which Leinster have faced in recent seasons, a game which is possibly one of the biggest Glasgow have ever played, and for which a record crowd of the order of 6,500 is expected.

Scottish rugby has struggled with the professional game. The proponents of their country's referendum for independence from the remainder of the UK after 700 years may well have drawn inspiration from the determination of the Murrayfield authorities to remain aloof from the goings-on in the rest of the rugby kingdom rather than from Robert Burns, William Wallace and co.

All that appears to be in the past now as both Glasgow and Edinburgh have settled down to consistent levels of performance, and are seriously competitive in both Pro12 and Heineken competitions, as evidenced by the triumph of Michael Bradley's Edinburgh in Paris on Friday night.

The Warriors won't lack motivation, and Ulster's trouncing of Leicester will contribute some inspiration too. Both sides have won their home games so far, and both managed draws in Montpelier too -- Leinster's victory in Bath and a bigger haul of bonus points provides the difference between the sides in the pool standings.

All sides with realistic ambitions of success at European level need access to a squad of real depth, not just in quantity but in quality too. Since his arrival, Joe Schmidt has consistently shown a capacity to win games while rotating his squad and developing the young talent at his disposal.

Sean Lineen has neither quantity nor quality at his disposal and his resources were further depleted last week with the withdrawal through injury of prop Moray Low, one of his side's pillars. By contrast, Schmidt's only withdrawal has been Luke Fitzgerald, whose replacement on the wing is the highly impressive David Kearney. An interesting aspect too of Schmidt's selection is that he has gone for what could be loosely termed his home Heineken team, with a back row of Seán O'Brien, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, and Eoin Reddan preferred to start at scrumhalf over regular away starter Isaac Boss, indicating a positive mindset .

The Warriors have shown a capacity for a more protracted challenge, particularly at home, and in their departing skipper Richie Gray, they have a second-row of genuine quality who will lead his side in a sustained challenge for the full 80 minutes. It's difficult to see them, however, matching their visitors man for man. The bookies are forecasting Leinster by eight points, but I have a hunch they may be underestimating the champions.

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