Champions Cup

Saturday 12 July 2014

Schmidt targets Pro12 consolation

EXETER CHIEFS 20
LEINSTER 29

David Kelly

Published 21/01/2013|05:00

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Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt

No recriminations for Leinster, then. No regrets, either.

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Renewal must be their focus now, from the very moment they stepped disconsolately into the icy Devonshire air on Saturday evening and set for home, as uncertain about their European fate at the final whistle as they had been before its opening toot.

They could have understandably bleated about perceived injustices.

How they yet again shared a home with Clermont – both are top seeds next season, so that won't be repeated. Or how French indifference can so tip the balance when the numbers are added up after round six.

But this is professional sport and these are professional people. Them's the breaks, even including the hazardous injury-list.

And so, after huffing and puffing in the early stages, and the careless inability to get more than a point away to Clermont, Leinster's proud fighters can't necessarily complain if caught with a sucker punch close to the final bell.

Privately, the club will admit introspectively to the shortcomings – specifically in terms of squad depth and particularly in the second-row – that have clouded their progress in defence of their back-to-back crowns. Publicly, Leinster will adopt a positive attitude and, regardless of its hue, plough on with a European trophy as their goal and, finally under Joe Schmidt, the securing of an elusive Pro12 title that the squad so crave.

The shortcomings will begin to be addressed almost immediately; one of the items on the agenda will be to investigate precisely the terms of Richie Gray's three-year deal with Sale. If an escape hatch for the immensely talented second-row Lions prospect exists should the hapless Sharks be relegated, then Leinster should ensure that a pen with their logo is the first to be waved before him.

Item one on the agenda sadly resides out of Leinster's destiny; fittingly, given that the final two weeks of their Heineken Cup defence seemed to be played out with half an eye helplessly awaiting news from beyond their sphere of control.

Jonathan Sexton's future is the most urgent issue but there is a growing undercurrent of feeling that his decision may come sooner, rather than later, with the ideal scenario delivering the verdict well before Ireland begin their Six Nations campaign in Cardiff on Saturday week.

Leinster are still of the belief that the extraordinary swirl of speculation – none of which derived from their HQ – might resolve itself with a commitment by the out-half to stay in Ireland.

"It's not for me," was Schmidt's assertion. "It is an IRFU issue. I know that Jonny would be in demand.

"He is a super kid. He works hard, he is brave and he runs a good game, so we would love to hang on to him – and I know Ireland would love for him to stay in the country as well.

"But I also know what the realities are and there will be big offers for quality players like Jonny. Hopefully that is something that plays out in the next week or so. The one thing I would say is it would be great for Jonny if it was sorted out in the next week.

"I don't think Jonny needs it heading into the Six Nations. I really hope that one way or another – well, one way! – it is sorted out before the end of the week."

Sexton's decision is not merely personal – it's business. Leinster know this too.

Were their most marketable talent to decamp to pastures new, erstwhile team-mates may shift uncomfortably, particularly those like Rob Kearney and Cian Healy who have yet to see the colour of the IRFU's money.

Schmidt, who can only offer the wise counsel of a decent character and a superb coach, is paid with IRFU cheques but ultimately has no say in their decision.

It is reckoned he has only one year left in this country himself but it would be in his nature to maximise every minute of that time in the quest to re-establish this Leinster team as a European force after this blip.

"I don't think anyone can win everything in any year," he conceded on Saturday evening.

Run

"We have had a fantastic run to win three out of four and if that is the end of the current run we just have to try and win next year and give it our best shot.

"I do know that these guys love playing together and they will enjoy next year hopefully with as many of them together as possible. I enjoy their work ethic and the way they express themselves on the field.

"I am really proud of the way that we fought back to get in a position where we are still in the mix after losing those back-to-backs (to Clermont).

"We will have to forge ahead. We haven't won the Pro12 in a few years. We have lost three finals in a row and it might give us a clear area to have a crack at that.

"That is something that we have targeted the last two years, and having played a Heineken Cup final the week before makes it tough to get back up for it.

"The Amlin (Challenge Cup) final is in the RDS. There are still things to play for and I know that this team will dust themselves off and attempt to do the very best they can, regardless of what competition they are in."

Hooker Sean Cronin, whose imminent rejection of Connacht and acceptance of a new deal with Leinster will be confirmed shortly, echoed a collective sense of projecting forward with confidence, rather than reflecting back in lament.

"We're looking at the positives," he averred. "With the breaks we had, we're now getting guys back and getting into a rhythm now. There's a good sense of squad unity. It has to be positive.

"We're going to be in Europe in some shape or form. And we're going to have to take the positives out of that.

"There's some extremely difficult teams in the Amlin, the final is in the RDS. And we have the Rabo to play for as well. It's still all ahead of us."

Asked to sum up the effort, after a night of surreal rugby carved from a Benny Hill script – and conveniently refereed by him too – Schmidt resorted to his former teaching profession in response.

"We have been imperfect but an 'A' for effort," he said.

If there is to be one regret, it is that the closer they were to reaching perfection this season, the nearer the exit door loomed.

Exeter – L Arscott; I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson, K Barrett (W Chudley 55); B Moon (C Rimmer 55), N Clark, H Tui (C Mitchell 55); T Hayes (capt, J Hanks 55), D Mumm; T Johnson (B White 15), J Scaysbrook, R Baxter.

Leinster – R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O'Driscoll (I Madigan 72), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 55); C Healy (H van der Merwe 66), R Strauss (S Cronin h-t), M Ross (M Bent 67); L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin (R Ruddock 61), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Ref – R Poite (France).

Irish Independent

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