independent

Monday 21 April 2014

We cannot get distracted by the numbers – Schmidt

Leinster 33
Scarlets 14

Leinster's Luke Fitzgerald is tackled by Liam Williams of Scarlets at the RDS

If anything illustrated Leinster's desperation on Saturday evening, it must have been the sight of Irish rugby's greatest warrior pointedly refusing any entreaties from any direction to remove himself from the fray.

Brian O'Driscoll had turned his ankle – his good one, Joe Schmidt detailed wryly – but he had no intention of coming off as his side's despairing quest to bump up their minimalist try-scoring rate in this season's competition defence rather petered out a tad.

After an 80 minutes in Edinburgh when he had also purportedly declined to slip off for an early shower – hence the decision to "manage" him against the Scarlets on Saturday night – O'Driscoll's appetite still rages.

"He has just assured me that it's fine but he did that last time so ... " continued Schmidt enigmatically.

"I tell you what, though, he's one of the most mentally tough players that I've ever had anything to do with and it doesn't have to be fine for him to play."

The collective hunger of the squad is not at issue; however, a stuttering middle third of their pool campaign – mirroring the awkward middle third of Saturday's game – has left them behind the eight ball.

Even though Leinster snaffled a bonus against a willing but limited Welsh side with nothing to play for and few of their stars playing for it, it didn't seem like a point of celebration.

As the squad slumped to their couches yesterday eagerly scanning for favours elsewhere, it seems that the more they try to control their own destiny, the less influence they may ultimately have when their own fate is decided next weekend.

Hope still burns – it must do within the fiery bellies of the side that produced the competition's greatest fightback in the 2011 final – but it is not the stuff to which great sides normally like to cling.

"I'll be watching pretty much everything I can and at the same time trying to distance myself from the computations and try to focus on what we can control," mused Schmidt, who could barely mask his disappointment at Leinster's frustrating inability to add to their try-scoring tally.

"Because in the end inevitably you can get distracted by all the numbers. Inevitably you can hope, but hope doesn't actually get you over the line. So for us it's about making sure our plan and preparation is as good as it can be."

Ironically, Leinster's stated intentions for Saturday night, to create initial scoreboard pressure and build slowly, were abandoned once they discovered Scarlets' ridiculously soft underbelly, particularly at maul time, from where two of their first three tries derived after Jonathan Sexton declined three-point chances.

Leinster's early blitzkrieg – their three five-pointers in 31 minutes matched their try-scoring feats in the entire opening four games of the campaign – may, perhaps, offer a template for the presumably stiffer task awaiting in Exeter next weekend, notwithstanding the Chiefs' heavy hosing in Clermont.

"I know teams probably wouldn't write us off yet because we don't know what happens next," said Schmidt.

"What I'd love to see happen next is we get five points and somebody comes under pressure.

"But I've got massive respect for Exeter and for Rob Baxter, the quality of the players he's got and the collective there.

"So, we'll come up with a plan, we had one today – we didn't stick to it at all – and it worked out okay. We'll come up with another plan that will last at least until kick-off, then we'll chase our tails and see what we can do."

Schmidt was only half jesting; such are the dire straits that logic flies out of the window.

Hence O'Driscoll's keen desire to remain in the fray even while he was visibly limping, leading some to wonder whether the Irish captain should perhaps, at this stage of his career, be protected from himself to some degree.

As if the player himself would deign to contemplate such condescension!

"Yes and no, he's tough," added Schmidt. "He's really experienced, he knows his own body, he knows what he can push through.

"The last time, he tried to push through it and he came straight off, this time he felt it was getting better every time he took a step on it – that's a really good sign for an ankle.

"A lot of guys, when you've done an ankle a lot of times, it only takes five or six minutes, that ligament inevitably gets loose because you've strained it a number of times, you feel a discomfort but not for a long time.

"He felt that he was running it off and it was getting better with every minute he stayed on the pitch.

"I can only say he's not worried about himself. I worry about everyone all the time. I suppose that's my job."

He will worry a little less about the ill Sean O'Brien – for whom Rhys Ruddock stood in immensely – and he is also confident about Richardt Strauss and Kevin McLaughlin returning to the fray.

And there was real encouragement in the form of Luke Fitzgerald, who mixed the sublime with the rusty but at least enough of the former to presumably make it impossible for Declan Kidney to ignore him when he unveils his Six Nations plans this week.

"He definitely showed Ireland form," agreed Isaac Boss. "It always takes a couple of games to get back into the groove. Hopefully now he can push on even more.

"I know he's just happy to be back out there and being part of it all. He looked happy out there which is good."

That Leinster weren't entirely happy may be a good thing; they will use that crankiness to steel them for one last frantic effort.

Leinster – R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (B O'Driscoll 62); J Sexton (I Madigan 72), I Boss (E Reddan 54); C Healy (H van der Merwe h-t), S Cronin (A Dundon 64), M Ross (M Bent 72), L Cullen (capt, T Denton 64), D Toner, R Ruddock, J Heaslip, S Jennings (J Murphy 58).

Scarlets – L Williams; A Fenby, G Maule (J Davies h-t), S Williams (A Warren 54), K Phillips; A Thomas, T Knoyle (G Davies h-t); P John (R Jones 64), K Owens (M Rees 64), J Adriaanse (S Lee 49), G Earle, R Kelly (J Snyman 59), S Timani, R McCusker (T Vallejos 59, R Kelly 72), J Turnbull.

Ref – J Garces (France)

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