Leinster grit gives Irish army welcome platform
SATURDAY turned out to be a day of mixed emotions for Joe Schmidt. There was disappointment tempered with relief in the morning, as his Ireland contingent failed to live up to their billing but left New Zealand to rejoin the Leinster ranks in one piece.
Then Leinster went out as if still groggy from getting up early to watch the World Cup and were, in the words of their coach, "bullied" for parts of the opening 40 minutes. They looked in trouble, but rallied after the break to produce a 20-point turnaround to beat Connacht and give a little cheer to one set of rugby fans.
The New Zealander had spoken to some of his players in the Irish squad and, although delighted with his own side's win, he was still feeling for his charges.
"I've spoken to a couple of them," he said. "They're down, obviously. That was an incredibly disappointing way to finish what had been such an incredibly exciting tournament for them.
"In a lot of ways they don't deserve what they got, but that's the nature of sport. For some of those Irish guys, they might take a little while to bounce back up. At least we have put ourselves in a pretty good position here so when they filter back in to us, they'll be coming into a positive environment and they'll bounce back quickly.
"We have 13 games on the trot and we're going to need everyone fit and on deck. There are some guys who have played less than others. They'll have bumps and bruises and we'll have to work our way through that once they start to come back in."
This has been a testing month for the Leinster coach: 14 Irish call-ups have been exacerbated by a host of injuries.
He has also had to manage the disappointments of the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, who must have watched Saturday's game believing that he could have made an impact off the bench and judging by his second try-scoring performance in a week at the RDS, he could have been right.
Leinster emerge from a tough period unscathed, in third spot, level with Munster and six points off the unbeaten Ospreys. Next time they take the field, in three weeks' time against Edinburgh, they will have some more familiar faces to lead them.
Their performance on Saturday wasn't vintage, and Connacht looked like they were going to take full advantage having led 20-10 at half-time, after Ray Ofisa's solo effort cancelled out Devin Toner's barrelling run to the line and Niall O'Connor used the wind to full advantage to build the score.
Having been bullied before the break, Leinster improved massively afterwards with half-backs Cillian Willis -- whose short-term deal expired after this game, with Schmidt hoping to speak to him next week about his future -- and Ian Madigan influential.
Isa Nacewa and Madigan edged them back in with the boot, before Richardt Strauss won a scrum against the head, Leo Auva'a charged and Fitzgerald got over at the next phase. Connacht attempted a rally, with Brian Tuohy going close, but it wasn't to be.
"I'd be pretty open with what was said at half-time. We were bullied in the second 20 minutes of the first half, so there was a bit of direction given and a little bit of resolve emerged from the group as well," Schmidt said.
"That's the sort of learning and progress you want to see. I thought we played relatively smart in the second half as well. I'm just delighted to have scrambled the win and we'll try to kick on from here."
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; F Carr (D Hudson 53), E O'Malley, L Fitzgerald, D Kearney; I Madigan, C Willis; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, J Hagan (N White h-t); S Sykes (D Browne 64), D Toner; K McLaughlin (D Ryan 50), R Ruddock (capt), L Auva'a.
CONNACHT -- M Jarvis (D McSharry 50); M McCrea (S Laydon64), G Duffy (capt), H Fa'afili, B Tuohy; N O'Connor, F Murphy (P O'Donohoe 54); B Wilkinson (R Loughney 53), A Flavin (E Reynecke 53), D Rogers (R Ah You 66); M Swift, M McCarthy (D Gannon 66); J Muldoon, J O'Connor, R Ofisa (TJ Anderson h-t).
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (IRFU)