Early woes made us stronger -- Schmidt
Published 15/04/2011 | 05:00
Seven months ago, a prominent broadcaster -- have a wild guess, pop pickers! -- suggested that perhaps Leinster should do the decent thing and show new coach Joe Schmidt the door.
With the Kiwi still unpacking his suitcases, the thought that a professional rugby outfit might operate akin to the token plaything of some Russian oligarch seemed absurd.
Whatever the propensity for instant gratification so abhorrently propagated in Murdoch-vision, professional club rugby's complexity demands a bedding-in process, particularly when more than half-a-dozen players have retired and your three leading coaches have exited.
Mercifully, Schmidt's perceptive employers recognised this fact, so too his eager playing charges.
September's stuttering start -- three defeats from four games, including an embarrassing loss in Italy -- may yet ultimately cost Leinster a home draw in the Magners League semi-final.
But Schmidt believes that the overwrought angst will have been worth it if the long-term benefits of blooding previously callow fringe squad members, as well as embedding himself in Leinster's culture, provide their rewards when the gongs are handed out next month.
Schmidt's easy self-effacement allows him to detach from the personal criticism he received last September, quite simply because he too occasionally questioned his role in the side's alarming slump.
"I think you learn more about the character of your players when times were a bit tough," he admits. "I don't know how the players felt but I certainly thought it was a bit tough then.
"Certainly I was being told by a lot of people that times were tough -- thankfully not my employers -- but another couple of weeks and, who knows, that might have even appeared.
"For me the investment in that period was worthwhile in the long term -- but at the same time I think I could have done a better job. I didn't understand probably the players and the player welfare programme and how I could best balance that. It was all totally new to me and it was a very difficult beast to manage."
Schmidt's humility is refreshing; yet he concedes that his side will probably not match their Heineken Cup home semi-final achievement should Ulster prevail tomorrow; indeed, he reckons a defeat may even eliminate them altogether from the ultimate top four line-up.
"If we lose this weekend we can't get a home semi at all; if we lose this weekend we've lost control of our own destiny. If we do qualify for the semis it will be because of someone else slipping up, not us doing what we've needed to do," he says.
Still, Schmidt's admiration of the bigger picture will frame those expectations, particularly with Toulouse looming at the Heineken Cup semi-finals.
"It's going to be carnage to a degree because we're already beaten up and that makes you vulnerable.
"In the really big games if you haven't got your top-quality players playing -- your international players playing -- then it's a great opportunity for younger players but it's also a lot of pressure on a young player.
"Having said that there were 27 different players used in the Heineken Cup so far this season and they've all stood up and done a pretty good job, even when the more experienced players haven't been there."
Particularly since he was still virtually introducing himself to the squad when others were urging his employers to politely push a P45 through his letter box.
"I didn't know them, so anything's a surprise for me!" he says with a smile. "If a set-play works it's a surprise to me because I always hope for the best.
"I look for the best in the players and I've got to say, thankfully as the season progressed, more often than not the best has been in display and the young players have really helped us."
Youth may be required tomorrow as Schmidt tests a glut of walking wounded, chiefly Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Isa Nacewa and Shane Jennings.
- The Official Leinster Supporters Club will hold Ladies Night V in aid of Action Breast Cancer (ABC) at the Serpentine Hall of the RDS before tomorrow night's game. Details at www.leinsterrugby.ie.