Schmidt has his work cut out to tarnish Noves' golden years
Much has changed since Leinster lost their way at this stage last year, writes Jim Glennon
My last away game with Leinster was in Toulouse in 1998. With a few minutes to go after we had put up the customary gallant fight, Toulouse were awarded a penalty close to our posts. They took the kick at goals to seal their victory.
The coach Mike Ruddock turned to me and said "at least that's progress, they felt obliged to take the three points".
Leinster have come a long way from Toulouse in 1998 and will have no inhibitions whatsoever about entertaining them next weekend. In many ways, the boot may well be on the other foot.
There aren't too many players in the current squad who were around back then. I can only think of three, Leinster's near certain starters at 12, 13 and 14 for next week, Gordon D'Arcy, Brian O'Driscoll, and Shane Horgan.
But one man who was there and had been there for the previous six years was Toulouse coach Guy Noves. He is still there. There is no question that he is one of the outstanding contributors to European rugby and has played a big role in the success of the Heineken Cup.
I've always been of the view that Noves and Toulouse got themselves into the same happy position as Brian Cody with the Kilkenny Hurlers and Mick O'Dwyer with the Kerry footballers.
They only have to peak for four or maybe five games every season and those games are almost guaranteed good playing conditions. Get their charges right for that series and their season is made.
Noves also possesses what I consider to be one of the hallmarks of an outstanding manager: he is unafraid to take risks with what are euphemistically referred to as characters within the dressing room.
O'Dwyer had his with Kerry and Cody has his too with Kilkenny. We don't have to look too far to find an example of this with Noves. Our own Trevor Brennan was one of his most successful signings and probably one of his greatest tests. The fact that he was prepared to take on the challenge of Trevor and to do so with such success speaks volumes of Noves' capacity as a man manager.
He has taken on another one recently too, a Fijian winger by the name of Rupeni Caucaunibuca, an individual who has left most of his previous managers with premature baldness. Noves, however, rarely makes a mistake and he appears to be lining 'Caucau' up for an appearance in the Aviva. If he does it will be a fascinating battle of the giants, pitching his 18 and a half stone against the near 17 stone of Shane Horgan.
Leinster met their Waterloo last year in the semi-final when their scrum let them down particularly badly. This year, thanks to a combination of Greg Feek and Mike Ross, this has been largely turned around, particularly as evidenced in the win over Leicester. In that game the scrum and indeed the front row's performance around the park was a distinct advantage.
The astonishing tackle count of the front row as a unit that day will hardly be repeated for the simple reason that Toulouse are most unlikely to concentrate their attacking lines in the same channels as Leicester. But nonetheless the big improvement in the unit's capability is significant. In addition, and again in comparison with last year's semi-final, the marked improvement of players
such as Isa Nacewa, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross and Seán O'Brien has combined to bring the Leinster team effort to an entirely new level. They have reached a standard that allows them to be comfortable at the sharp end of European rugby rather than scratching for qualification from the pools.
And this is not to ignore either the huge contribution of first-year coach Joe Schmidt. There hasn't been a bad word spoken about him since some of the more controversial pundits were sending him home to New Zealand after the first four games of the Magners League were played by his understrength squad.
This year's Heineken Cup knockouts have been distinctive for one reason and that is Munster's absence for the first time in 14 years. Leinster are flying the Irish flag with some style and I expect both to be in Cardiff for finals weekend.
Sunday Indo Sport