Time for O'Driscoll and Co to rise from slumber
Published 02/10/2010 | 05:00
The 'drive for five' will be the last thing on the Leinster players' minds as the eagerly awaited showdown with Munster at the Aviva Stadium comes firmly into focus.
Of much more immediate concern to a provincial set-up than a potential fifth straight victory over Munster, is to produce a collective performance of genuine substance. Even in beating the Cardiff Blues, their one win to date, they flattered to deceive, swinging from hot to cold at key times in that RDS contest.
They were poor in Glasgow and worse in Treviso before plumbing the depths at Murrayfield against Edinburgh -- hardly the type of form to inspire confidence ahead of tonight's sell-out clash at the new-age Lansdowne Road.
In defence of Joe Schmidt and his much-changed back-room staff, they do need time to settle in and impose their philosophy and -- one hopes -- a winning style upon a group that has gone through radical evolution under Michael Cheika during his five eventful years in charge.
When Cheika and David Knox arrived in the summer of 2005, both were, in many ways, off the wall. Some of the things they said and did were different to say the least.
But in time they bedded down and with Cheika's increasing influence came a change in Leinster culture. That legacy is still there, despite the best efforts of many to conceal it of late.
They haven't become a bad team or lost their way entirely over the summer recess, but what they have mislaid is the ruthless mindset, the attention to individual detail that makes a talented group a successful one.
Quite where responsibility lies, I'm not sure. You need to be part of the set-up to have an informed opinion on this.
However, what I do know is that the blame game, currently taking wings in and around the Leinster camp, is a dangerous one. Here Schmidt, however well-intentioned his take on missing one-on-one tackles, must tread warily.
One of his predecessors, Matt Williams, a technically superb coach and the next most influential mentor to Cheika, had this remarkable facility for pointing good performances in the direction of (his) "systems kicking into place", but when things went belly-up, it was always down to "individual error". In the end players lost faith and that is the danger inherent in Schmidt's widely quoted post-Edinburgh statement that "we haven't done anything differently other than miss tackles".
From what I am told, Schmidt is a very different animal to Williams, yet pointing the finger, however innocuously, in public is not geared to carrying the dressing-room with you in times of crisis.
Three defeats in four is not the start Leinster would have envisaged, but neither is it a crisis -- yet. Defeat again this evening and a festering sore could well become a raging cancer.
It is dangerous for Schmidt to let even the remotest public perception of player blame develop. The sanctity of the dressing-room must be protected by both players and management. Lose it and you've got little left.
To their credit the Leinster players, specifically senior pros Shane Horgan and Brian O'Driscoll, have been up front in taking it on the chin. According to Horgan: "It's only the players' responsibility at the moment." Dare one point to the relevance of "at the moment"?
For O'Driscoll, who himself was patently out of sorts in Edinburgh, it's about "player responsibility" and "the need to front up individually against Munster".
Talk can, of course, be cheap, but, in many ways, it's been an easy week for players and management.
However, as Schmidt is about to learn, when these two tribes go to war it is different.
Leinster should have home advantage in terms of blue outnumbering red in the stands, but the magnificent venue will be neutral in every other way as players step on to the new pitch for the first time.
For Munster and coach Tony McGahan, the lead-in has been low-key, with the focus firmly on under-performing Leinster. Would he want it any other way? Equally he knows the criticism has stung (even the normally unflappable O'Driscoll has been rattled by objective comment in the past few days), so suitably forewarned of a backlash, should mean the visitors will be forearmed.
Munster reside where Leinster would like to be at this critical stage in the season. Unbeaten and joint top of the Magners League with a match in hand (albeit as tough an away gig as it gets). They are still, though, playing somewhat under the radar, having gone back to basics and doing the simple things well.
Expect that to be the Leinster mantra this evening. If they can dictate the tempo in getting the fundamentals right, then the level of collective intensity (absent thus far this season) will rise accordingly.
To that end Jonathan Sexton's presence is pivotal. Without him they have lacked shape or direction. It is a big call for Schmidt, as I know through personal experience, that a torn or in any way damaged rectus femoris (quad) is a debilitating injury, most particularly for a goal-kicker of Sexton's standard.
He needs game time badly, particularly with the Heineken Cup looming large. Like a damaged hamstring, an injured quadricep needs rest to recover, but in this instance time is not on his or Leinster's side.
On the assumption he plays uninhibited, it is massive game to call. Munster are the form side, but, in theory at least, they are the ones on the road.
The smart money says they, like Tipp, will arrest the slide. With hand on heart, I haven't a clue.
For the first time this season, I expect Leinster to walk the walk with conviction thereby making it a contest set for the wire.
Whatever else the real rugby season is well and truly under way.
arrives at last
Limerick last night hosted the first of what the IRFU has affectionately dubbed the 'Friday Night Lights' matches.
Great local rivals and previous All-Ireland League winners Garryowen and Young Munster launched the 21st season of the AIL in atmospheric Dooradoyle. It is a welcome initiative, albeit a few years late, but certainly better late than never.
While complimenting Scott Walker and his domestic rugby committee on this development, would it be stretching it too much to suggest to the powers-that-be at Lansdowne Road that they stretch it to include Sunday (daylight) AIL rugby as well as staggering Saturday kick-off times to avoid clashing with Magners League or Heineken Cup rugby where possible?