Sexton to light up Leinster
Return of out-half can provide Schmidt with badly needed boost in Edinburgh
Published 24/09/2010 | 05:00
IT is far too early in the season to be talking about 'must- win' games, but that is not to deny the extent of the pressure on Leinster and their coach Joe Schmidt when they run out to face Edinburgh in Murrayfield tonight (7.05).
The New Zealander has been hamstrung by injury and player restrictions in his first three Magners League outings and the consequent lack of edge was shown up in the away defeats to Glasgow and, particularly, Treviso. There has also been an element of players and coach adjusting to each other, complicated by the different pre-season programmes for Leinster's international and regular contingents.
However, for tonight's clash against the winless Scots, Schmidt can finally reflect on a team-sheet packed with heavy-hitters, particularly in the backline where Leinster field an all-international unit.
Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy form a Grand Slam-winning midfield, with fellow Slammers Rob Kearney (who wins his 100th Leinster cap tonight) and Luke Fitzgerald in the back three alongside Shane Horgan.
However, the most significant selection is at out-half, where Jonathan Sexton returns from injury to make his first start of the season. At a relatively early stage of his career, Sexton has become a hugely influential figure in Leinster and Irish rugby and his presence promises to bring the control that was lacking in the defeats at Firhill and the Stadio di Monigo.
Place-kicking was also an issue in those defeats, with Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden struggling for consistency off the tee, and Sexton's proven record in this department will be a source of comfort for Schmidt.
Sexton's return should also ease the pressure on Eoin Reddan inside him and the emphasis tonight should be on swift delivery to the backline, with the occasional timed break from the base, where the scrum-half's pace makes him an effective weapon.
In the pack, Mike Ross has the opportunity to continue his strong start to the season, backing up our contention of the past two seasons that consistent game time brings out the best in this strong scrummaging tight-head. Devin Toner makes his seasonal debut in the second row with the brief to provide the line-out consistency that was so lacking in Treviso, while Shane Jennings leads an abrasive back row next to Dominic Ryan and Stephen Keogh.
It is a strong selection, buttressed by the presence of genuine game-breakers on the bench in the shape of Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip and the in-form Nacewa, and a side that is capable of preying on the brittle confidence of their hosts, who, Tim Visser aside, have looked laboured and limited thus far.
"It will be a tough trip because they haven't had a win yet and they'll be desperate," said Schmidt. "They're a good side with quality right across the board.
"As was demonstrated last week against Treviso, all teams have their quality and if you're not accurate enough then all of the games will tend to be in the balance.
"We were disappointed that we didn't create a great platform to play from, particularly in the conditions, and our defence was something else for us to improve on and we didn't quite dominate them in the collisions.
"Edinburgh have a pretty tough pack and a solid set-piece. You have to have your discipline right, because in Chris Paterson, they have a very accurate kicker; his kicking out of hand is very good as well. His counter-attack is also very strong.
"Tim Visser was named on the Magners League Dream Team last year and he has scored some very impressive tries.
Although Roddy Grant is the nominated captain, scrum-half Mike Blair is the heartbeat of this Edinburgh side and will be looking to shepherd his brother David at out-half following the cruciate ligament injury to regular No 10 Phil Godman, who will be out of action for at least six months.
Forwards coach Tom Smith was a no-nonsense operator during his playing days with Northampton, Scotland and the Lions and the 38-year-old is advocating a back-to-basics approach as Edinburgh bid to get their season up and running.
"People quite often tend towards a negative viewpoint. If we want to change negatives into positives, it is all about results," said Smith.
"We have made strides in the right direction, but it is no good coming away with nothing. It's all very well giving ourselves a pat on the back and saying the contact work was better or this, that and the other was improved.
"The way ahead is to focus on what needs to be fixed. Only then can we look at ourselves in the mirror. There comes a point where you just have to win."
A great deal at stake then, at a venue where Leinster have had their problems. Edinburgh are on a seven-match losing streak, while Leinster have not won away from the RDS since they defeated Munster in Thomond Park last April.
Leinster have the Munstermen next up in Lansdowne Road and they will be desperate to go into that fixture on the back of a morale-boosting victory. With Sexton on board, that should be achieved tonight.
EDINBURGH -- C Paterson; M Robertson, B Cairns, A Grove, T Visser; D Blair, M Blair; A Jacobsen, R Ford, G Cross, E Lozada, S MacLeod; S Newlands, R Rennie, R Grant (capt). Reps: A Kelly, K Traynor, J Gilding, C Hamilton, A MacDonald/D Denton, G Laidlaw, T Brown, J Houston.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; E O'Donoghue, D Toner; D Ryan, S Jennings (capt), S Keogh. Reps: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, S Shawe, M Galarza, J Heaslip, I Boss, I Nacewa, E O'Malley.
REF -- T Hayes (Wales)
Edinburgh v Leinster,
Live, RTE 2, 7.05