McLaughlin comeback a huge boost for Schmidt
IT sounds as if Joe Schmidt had a pretty miserable Christmas, so his side's performance against Ulster and the news that Kevin McLaughlin is fit again must have cheered him up no end.
Suffering from a bad cold and with his family gone home to New Zealand for the festive season, the Leinster coach spent the day huddled in front of a fire with his mind on the day job. It was probably just as well his players delivered the perfect present at Ravenhill on Monday by hammering Ulster.
McLaughlin's return boosts the Kiwi's options ahead of a second inter-provincial clash in five days. The blind-side last played in the Magners League final defeat to the Ospreys on May 29, lasting 30 minutes before suffering a serious knee injury.
His return bolsters Schmidt's back-row options after a period of relying on the impressive, but inexperienced, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock in recent weeks.
The 26-year-old, who made his Ireland debut against Italy in last year's Six Nations, could have played in the win over Ulster but the weather prevented a full fitness test.
Eoin O'Malley looks set to return with Brian O'Driscoll in Declan Kidney's training camp and is definitely not available, while Leinster must wait until later in the week until they know which of their internationals they can pick as the likes of Sean O'Brien, Leo Cullen and Mike Ross train with the national squad and may not be released.
Schmidt does know that Jamie Heaslip and others who featured heavily in the November Tests definitely won't be involved, while Nathan Hines and Richardt Strauss come back into contention.
"I'm pretty confident Kevin will be available," Schmidt revealed. "What role he plays in the game, we're not sure yet. It will depend on how he comes through training. He was to be fitness-tested about a week and a half ago but we couldn't get on the field to do the full spectrum of fitness tests.
"Hopefully we'll see him back on the pitch because he's a really good player. Some of those guys will be released to us to play but they will just do the captain's run on Friday.
"Eoin possibly could have played against Ulster but we had Brian O'Driscoll available so it was just pertinent to give him a few more days and have him fresh coming into this game."
Connacht have a job on their hands to pick themselves up after their gut-wrenching near miss against Munster last Monday and Schmidt is wary of the wounded animal. They did damage to Munster's set-piece and had chance after chance to win the game before coming up short.
Praising the Westerners' spirit, the New Zealander tellingly picked out two of their dangermen -- who just happen to be joining him on the east coast next season.
"They utilise (Fionn) Carr and guys like Sean Cronin," he said. "Those sort of guys are lethal for them. It's their unity and defensive work that makes them very difficult to break down. They will seize upon a chance where they create a little bit of space and they are away.
"(Carr) is very, very fast. He's very strong and he's got a low centre of gravity so is very hard to knock off his balance. He is a real weapon for them.
"They are incredibly competitive. How many times do they get hammered? I don't know how many times this year they have had a losing bonus point. Even against us, they were unlucky to let that slip at the end of the game. I don't think I've ever seen them really taken to the cleaners."
Schmidt has some sympathy for Eric Elwood and his men, who just can't seem to get a break in the big games as they found out again on Monday. But as he says himself, that's Munster.
"They just give you nothing and I think Eric is doing a really good job. Sometimes you don't get reward for the work you do or the reward takes time to arrive. They were desperately unlucky against Munster, but that's Munster for you. They win those close ones."