Schmidt's blue brigade go rolling on
Fitzgerald and Jennings show they are ready for double chase
Published 18/04/2011 | 05:00
We have become so acquainted with Leinster's ruthless efficiency of late, we shouldn't really be surprised to learn that they have their maths down pat.
Those of us in the bleachers able to count to 10 suggested that two bonus-point wins, in Aironi next week and at home to Glasgow in three weeks' time, would prove sufficient to secure a Magners League home semi-final. Not so.
"Nine," demurred Leinster coach Joe Schmidt instantly. Having seen Scarlets dismissed from the play-offs before kick-off, Ospreys' surprise defeat the night before, and added to this handsome spanking, it has created a sufficiently wide gap ahead of the Blues.
A renewed vigour informs us that a domestic/European double never before performed in Ireland is very much on the cards.
And all this with seven changes on a night that extracted maximum value from the entrance fee; Devin Toner spinning loops, Shane Horgan executing eye-level dinks and Cian Healy harassing kicking coach Richie Murphy for a back-row audition.
Healy got his 15 seconds of fame. "We thought we could risk that," smiled Schmidt, unwittingly intimating just how comfortable this effort was, typically backboned by an early power surge.
It would have been more satisfactory had Ulster deigned to show up for the opening quarter, during which Leinster harvested three-quarters of their bonus-point tries.
By half-time they had trousered the full Monty and the visitors' only spring of faint hope was a solid scrum that produced three of the four penalties Ian Humphreys slotted by the 45th minute.
Sadly, the game disintegrated in a final 25 minutes which produced only one score, as both sides introduced replacements with annoying regularity and the only late drama was seeing Leinster stubbornly repel Ulster's quest for a bonus point.
Still, satisfying stuff for Leinster, albeit they coughed up a substantial lead for the third week running.
"From a performance perspective I was really happy with that first-half," offered Schmidt on an opening period in which Luke Fitzgerald's glacial restoration of form edged encouragingly forwards.
"I thought that we played with the right sort of tempo, we executed a few things, we really had a rhythm that I was happy with. But for a couple of set-piece issues that we struggled with, we really did play well in that first 50 minutes.
"I thought we did drop off things making so many changes, especially because we made them in batches, we just lost a little bit of shape and cohesiveness, but we kept enough fluidity to hang in there and I thought our defensive work was pretty good.
"Again Ulster are a good side and they did engineer a couple of really good tries and while that was frustrating, it was great that we denied them the bonus point, because at the finish there they could have picked up two bonus points if they'd scored."
That Ulster scored a try at all was startling enough, considering they hadn't crossed the whitewash in the RDS on four previous visits.
When they butchered a five on two, with Leo Cullen and Kevin McLaughlin seeing stars after a head collision, you could understand why. Though both sides saw yellow, Ulster lost 14-3 with their man missing, but were held scoreless when Sean O'Brien was sent to the cooler.
Craig Gilroy deserved his late score as he was their brightest attacking spark in a line-up where Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace disappointed -- more credit in Fergus McFadden's international account, one suspects.
Sadly, at the other end Gilroy and Co were repeatedly exposed early in the piece. When Dan Touhy decided that grappling with Cullen was a better ploy than defending his line, that sort of summed up Ulster's crippling inability to roll with the literal and metaphorical punches.
Aside from Fitzgerald, Leinster's other significant source of good news was the return of Shane Jennings; his former Leicester colleague Humphreys perhaps the sole objector after being transported into nearby Herbert Park with a stunning tackle on half-way.
"He's great because he's a great organiser for us and his work rate is fantastic," said Schmidt. "I suppose it gives me a bit of a headache, but the right sort of headache to have.
"Luke got a pretty severe knock early on when he challenged Adam D'Arcy and he had to get over the mental distraction of that and keep his head in the game and I thought he did really well.
"The longer the game went on I thought he looked more and more settled, was starting to talk more, was organising the guys from the outside in defensively and offered a little bit on the lines he took as well. Hopefully, this will ignite his season."
Leinster's season is bubbling with anticipation now. "It is a great spot to be in, it's a spot that before the weekend I certainly would have grabbed with two hands," confirmed Schmidt, whose only decisions now revolve around who to leave out of his accomplished, hungrily competitive squad.
"I think there will be a number of them on display," he said of his frontliners ahead of Saturday's trip to Aironi. "I think, at the moment, they've only been back in for a couple of weeks since the Six Nations, so to get them all together is not the worst thing either.
"If we can do that for Toulouse and maybe, you know, for Glasgow, we can mix and match as those games come up, because we'll have a clearer picture of whether we'll have another game in the Heineken Cup after Toulouse. So really, I'm not looking too much further ahead than these two games."
Ulster's scant consolation for a second successive demoralising defeat is the knowledge that they may be offered a chance of redemption with a return engagement here in the semi-finals.
However, coach Brian McLaughlin seemed less than enamoured at even contemplating the prospect.
"I'll talk to you about that when we're there, is that okay? It's very disappointing for us, we came down here with high hopes, especially after last week and in the first 25 minutes we got blown off the park."
Little wonder. Leinster are just dynamite.
Leinster -- I Nacewa (D Kearney 50); S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton (I Madigan 50), I Boss; H Van der Merwe (C Healy 77), R Strauss (J Harris Wright 56), S Wright (M Ross 55), L Cullen (capt) (N Hines 49), D Toner, K McLaughlin (S O'Brien 49), J Heaslip, S Jennings.
Ulster -- A D'Arcy (C Gaston 66); A Trimble, N Spence (D Cave 50), P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys (P Marshall 70), R Pienaar; P McAllister (B Young 62), R Best (capt, A Kyriacou 77), BJ Botha (J Cronin 32), T Barker (N McComb 61), D Tuohy, R Diack (W Faloon 50), P Wannenberg, C Henrie.
REF -- P Gauzere (France).