Monday 24 July 2017

Schmidt's Leinster to lay down marker

David Kelly

David Kelly

Leinster wake up this weekend as one of the leading contenders to win this year's Heineken Cup. They could well end it by securing their status as undoubted favourites.

All that mocks them is the thin line that separates confidence from complacency. There seems little chance of the latter failing afflicting them. Saracens arrive talking a good game, but doubts surround their capability of playing one.

Six months into Joe Schmidt's reign as coach, his team bear all the hallmarks of a well-oiled machine, suited to peaking at just the right time to inject some fizz into their Heineken campaign.

Wins here and next week in Paris would guarantee them a home quarter-final, at which stage few in Europe would fancy their chances. Beyond that, unless Leinster travel to, say, Toulouse without, say, their first-choice out-half, few would bet against them winning a second European crown in three years. Heaven protect us, they could be on a hat-trick!

Schmidt's calm exterior betrays a ruthless mind. Take the reverse of this fixture, a Wembley victory which appreciates in value with every passing day. Then, Brian O'Driscoll cried off and Fergus McFadden was spoken of highly by the coach, but Luke Fitzgerald slotted into the breach.

return

Fast forward and, his return from injury notwithstanding, Fitzgerald is unable to elbow his way into the starting line-up ahead of full-back Isa Nacewa -- arguably Leinster's Player of the Year thus far -- or McFadden, flying it at wing.

Form trumps reputation; hence, Dominic Ryan is given the nod ahead of Kevin McLaughlin, the latter also, like Fitzgerald, just recently returned from injury, but not deemed indispensable amid Schmidt's egalitarian approach.

There may have been some subconscious pressure to adhere to national wishes and play Fitzgerald at full-back; yet this team is the best Schmidt feels is available to him to win today and that's all that matters.

Had this been a knock-out occasion, one imagines Jamie Heaslip might have struggled through with his ankle problem, however restrictive the impact on his explosive speed. Declan Kidney will be relieved no risk has been taken.

Instead, Heaslip's unfortunate absence -- it will be the first time he will miss out on a Heineken Cup occasion since Michael Cheika's first season in charge six seasons ago -- allows Sean O'Brien to slot in seamlessly.

O'Brien is arguably better served as a No 8 in any case; witness his display against Ulster recently and, for all of Leinster's back-row riches, the correct balance is still something Schmidt is striving for. His choice of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half will divide some; next week, it is likely he will start Isaac Boss. The grand plan outweighs any individual discrimination.

Saracens arrive amid a decent run of form, but you reckon their stolid form of attack should be easily repulsed by Leinster's formidable defence; their pack does, however, offer weight and height in the set-piece.

They will be committed to slowing down Leinster's ball as much as they felt the Irish stemmed their flow on that Wembley D-Day for Schmidt's Heineken Cup campaign; aside from destruction, what else do Saracens have to offer?

With a kid at out-half and a shaky full-back, Sarries are in damage limitation mode; they are out of the competition, but Leinster expect them to fling the dice for a tilt at the Challenge Cup.

"They showed some real unity to turn around and go to Paris in difficult conditions and win," says Schmidt of their last performance in this competition, winning away to Racing Metro.

"They'd nothing to gain from that game, having lost twice at home already, and lost away. Once you've lost your first three games, you're almost out of the pool and yet they went there and won.

"They had a real desire and a unity and if they bring it to the RDS then they're going to be difficult to get past."

Ernst Joubert, Rhys Gill and Nils Mordt all come into the side for the trip to Dublin in place of Jacques Burger, Deon Carstens and Alex Goode, who are all missing with minor knocks. Hugh Vyvyan also comes into the starting team. On the bench, Jared Saunders and the enigmatic Gavin Henson have both been registered for European competition this week, while Neil de Kock comes back into the matchday squad following paternity leave.

"We want to win as many games as we can and that is the attitude we will take to Dublin this weekend," says their captain Steve Borthwick, who has been touted for a recall to the England side.

With the weather forecast set to be pretty horrendous, the set-pieces will be pivotal, while Sarries' hooker Schalk Brits believes the imponderable interpretations of the breakdown could cause havoc, as happened in Wembley.

"When we played them first time around we had an illusion the reffing would be more like Super 14 and that was the impression we got from the refs -- roll away don't contest," observes Brits. "What Leinster did was they slowed down at the rucks and slowed so much of our ball. We weren't prepared for the way the ref interpreted the rucks.

"We've adapted quite a bit since then. We need to try our luck and see what the referee is going to allow. There will be a lot of scrums on Saturday. So, you have to see at the beginning what they're concentrating on, whether it's offside line, hands in ruck, not rolling away."

Leinster conceded they struggled miserably in this area last Friday under Nigel Owens; the autocratic Monsieur Poite is a prickly persona and the home side must not allow him to get under their skin. Expect Leinster to have their championship heads on.

Verdict: Leinster by 12 (four match points)

Leinster -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), N Hines, D Ryan, S Jennings, S O'Brien.

Reps: J Harris-Wright, H Van Der Merwe, C Newland, D Toner, K McLaughlin, I Boss, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.

Saracens -- N Mordt; D Strettle, M Tagicakibau, B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth; R Gill, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), H Vyvyan, K Brown, A Saull, E Joubert.

Reps: J George, J Saunders , P Du Plessis, H Smith, J Melck, N de Kock, G Henson, N Cato.

Ref -- R Poite (France)

Leinster v Saracens,

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