Ross helps Schmidt sidestep 'guillotine'
AFTER his successful stint as Clermont assistant coach, Joe Schmidt's arrival as Leinster's main man came with the 'French revolution' tag attached and, after 70 minutes of the Magners League clash with the Cardiff Blues at the RDS on Saturday night, the New Zealander had guillotines on his mind.
Winless in pre-season and having let victory slip away to Glasgow the previous weekend, Leinster found themselves 23-20 behind to the Blues with 10 minutes left, having squandered a 20-6 lead.
To add to the anxiety, the continuing complication of international player controls and a warm-up injury to out-half Jonathan Sexton meant Leinster's depth was being severely tested again, with Dominic Ryan, Ian Madigan, Fergus McFadden, Eoin O'Malley and David Kearney all on the park for the end-game.
"It is not just me, (forwards coach) Jono Gibbes lives and dies by what we do as well and we were both taking a step towards the guillotine around the 70-minute mark," acknowledged Schmidt.
"I don't think it was any different when I was in France. It might be my name attached to the team but, jeez, whether you are in behind or up in front of the team, you still live and die by it. It is just pressure."
Thus, the fact that the home side were able to kick on and score 14 unanswered points, with tries from two of the backline brat pack, was especially gratifying and, with this bonus-point win in the bag, both Schmidt's head-coach career and Leinster's season are up and running.
It was out-half Madigan who struck for the final try, following a super shoulder dip and surge that left his experienced opposite number Dan Parks clutching at Ballsbridge air and it completed an accomplished outing by the 21-year-old, who showed no nerves despite his last-minute call-up for Sexton.
"It was great for Mads," said Schmidt. "On reflection, I was a little bit worried when we lost Johnny so late, mainly because he had only come in this week into full-time training with us. He had pretty much run the team for the whole week.
"To lose that at the front end of the warm-up was a bit nerve-wracking, but not for young Ian Madigan. He just goes, 'Aw, fine, yep, great, I'll take it from there', and he took it not too badly."
As well as the performance of the younger brigade, the dominance of the Leinster scrum was hugely encouraging.
The long-term injury to Stan Wright and Mike Ross' niggling calf strain had created something of an early-season prop crisis, with Simon Shawe brought in at short notice from AIL club Ballymena.
Ross returned to the tight-head side for this clash and destroyed his young opponent Tom Davies, who was replaced by Tau Filise at half-time. That yielded a half-dozen penalties and free-kicks for the home team (although they were harshly penalised on a handful of occasions also on an inconsistent night for referee Andy Macpherson) and when Shawe replaced Ross after 67 minutes, he carried on the good work.
South Africans Heinke van der Merwe and Richardt Strauss played their parts, but it was the dominance of Ross and the strong showing of Cian Healy off the bench in tight and loose that will have pleased Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal.
"It's not so much a crisis, just that we need to have the depth," said Schmidt.
"We certainly profited from it (the scrum) -- must have been five or six penalties, and maybe two or three against us, but I thought we were unlucky not to get another two or three turnovers. We were certainly were dominating and both Heinke and Mike were going very, very well."
Back on the wing following his unconvincing display as stop-gap out-half against Glasgow, Isa Nacewa was the star turn, producing the full bag of tricks including Leinster's second touchdown, a try-saving tackle after a 70-metre sprint, some wonderful fielding under pressure and 14 points off the kicking tee.
Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings, who ran a great line off Isaac Boss for the first try, also stepped up to the plate as senior players and, after a quietly effective 60 minutes, Brian O'Driscoll returned for an eye-catching blood substitute's cameo that aided Leinster's late resurgence.
Healy's charge and off-load set up McFadden for the try that pushed Leinster back in front on 70 minutes, while Eoin Reddan picked up the pace from the base when he replaced Boss.
There is much still to work on, notably the speed of ruck possession and in defence, where Casey Laulala caused continual problems, but this is still a bedding-in process for Schmidt and his players, with five points against one of the league favourites a significant step in that regard.
"It's just very much a relief to get through," said Schmidt. "And the icing on the cake was that it was young Madigan, who wasn't due to start, who finished it off and managed to snaffle a bonus point at the end. That was fantastic."
LEINSTER -- L Fitzgerald; S Horgan (D Kearney 49), B O'Driscoll (E O'Malley 61), F McFadden (B O'Driscoll 74), I Nacewa; I Madigan, I Boss (E Reddan 53); H van der Merwe (C Healy 61), R Strauss (J Fogarty 55), M Ross (S Shawe 67); N Hines, E O'Donoghue (M Galarza 78); S O'Brien, J Heaslip, S Jennings (D Ryan 61).
CARDIFF -- C Czekaj; R Mustoe, C Laulala (G Evans 72), D Hewitt (G Evans 55-61), T James; D Parks, R Rees; T Davies (F Filise 40), T Rhys-Thomas, S Andrews (J Yapp 49); B Davies, D Jones (J Down 58); M Paterson, X Rush (Capt), S Warburton (B White 71).
REF -- A Macpherson (Scotland).