McFadden winging it as Leinster show hand ahead of Clermont test
JOE SCHMIDT's hand has been forced ahead of his return to Clermont -- the backline he fields at Parc y Scarlets tonight has one chance to get to know one another before going into the cauldron of the Stade Marcel Michelin next week.
Injuries to key personnel mean the New Zealander has named what looks like his preferred combination behind the scrum as he tries to recover from the losses of Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney -- and the potential loss of Brian O'Driscoll, whose injury is not as bad as first feared.
Throw in the absence of Andrew Conway, who has shown some impressive form in recent weeks, and Leinster's resources out wide, particularly at left wing, are down to the bare bones.
Thus, what should be a crucial Magners League game against the second-placed Scarlets has become an exercise in testing new combinations ahead of the bigger business of the Heineken Cup.
After three bruising internationals, Gordon D'Arcy is straight back into the action alongside Eoin O'Malley, who will fill O'Driscoll's No 13 jersey as Schmidt plans for the worst-case scenario.
Fergus McFadden is facing a crash course in wing play tonight ahead of the Clermont trip.
A centre by trade, McFadden looks set to get the nod ahead of a more natural but less experienced winger in David Kearney, who has featured in recent weeks without really making an impact.
Added to the raft of changes to Schmidt's first-choice backline, Leinster have been unable to train outdoors this week due to snow and weren't even sure they'd be able to travel to Wales until getting the all-clear late last night.
Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton find themselves back in tonight when they might have been rested after seeing heavy Test action -- so it's all hands on deck for the next three weeks.
There is no room for experimentation with such small margins and such a tough task ahead. That's the view of Peter McKenna, who occupied the fullback and wing position for Leinster in the early years of the last decade.
Capped against Argentina in 2000, the solicitor regularly provides analysis for Setanta Sports' coverage of the French Top 14 and is well aware of the threat posed by the French champions.
And while he believes Schmidt may have been tempted to try something different, the 37-year-old reckons he has picked the right combinations.
"I think it is a good selection," McKenna explains. "They have to play the percentages and limit the risks. The risks are new combinations and inexperience. While it must have been tempting to have D'Arcy or Isaac Boss going to full-back, they haven't got the time to do it.
"Clermont at home are a difficult proposition and you stick with your winning combinations. D'Arcy's been playing with Sexton and Reddan for Ireland. You look at Isa Nacewa, O'Malley and Shane Horgan -- they have been playing in their positions in the last few games for Leinster and they have been successful as well.
"So I think it really came down to McFadden or Kearney on the wing and I think you look at Kearney's inexperience. I'm a big fan of Dave Kearney, but now is not the time to find out about his ability on the big stage."
While Schmidt has been able rest Jamie Heaslip, the fact that D'Arcy starts is a true sign that his hand is being forced, according to McKenna.
He believes the speculation over O'Driscoll's return might be "mind-games" and reckons O'Malley is in for a difficult afternoon up against Aurelien Rougerie next week. At 6ft 4ins to the 22-year-old's 5ft 9ins, the potential for a physical mismatch is all too apparent.
Meanwhile, McFadden must adjust to a new position in order to face off against wily France wing Julien Malzieu in Clermont.
"It will be tough," McKenna says. "But he's a very intelligent player. You need to be when you're a kind of utility player like Fergus is, you need a rugby brain.
"It's not like he has had to think only as a centre, he has been encouraged to use his rugby brain, his intelligence to spot a gap. Yes, it might be a bit strange off first-phase ball, but less so as the phases go on -- I think we'll see him popping up all over the place.
"For O'Malley against Rougerie, it's going to be a big ask. Rougerie has been playing well this season. He's a real leader, a captain. He sets players up an awful lot with his offloading game. I'm not sure of the stats but I'm sure he has the height and size advantage over Eoin.
"But I'm sure there is a plan in place to deal with that. Whether it's how it's being defended, I'm not sure, but I'd say Rougerie won't have any room to move. O'Malley's a very good defender in his own right."
Leinster will hope their dry run this evening will tell a lot about their ability to deliver, but their lack of preparation means the performance will count more than the result.
SCARLETS -- D Newton; M Stoddart, G Maule, R King, J Ajuwa; R Priestland, Tavis Knoyle; P John, K Owens, P Edwards; D Welch, D Day; J Turnbull, J Edwards, D Lyons (capt). Replacements: M Rees, R Jones, D Manu, R McCusker, B Morgan, M Roberts, S Jones, S Williams.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; R Ruddock, D Ryan, S O'Brien. Replacements: T Sexton, J McGrath, C Newland, N Hines, S Jennings, P O'Donohoe, S Berne, D Kearney.
REF-- N Paterson (SRU).
Scarlets v Leinster,
Live, RTE 2, 7.05