The eight steps to fulfilment
Joe Schmidt has announced himself as a powerful presence this season. Hugh Farrelly analyses how the New Zealander has gone about establishing himself as a head coach to be reckoned with
It's all set up for a mugging. Northampton slip into Cardiff later this week as unfashionable underdogs, portrayed as a hard-working side with a dash of flair pitted against a superior force with stars in every position -- an easy psychological trigger for coach Jim Mallinder to press.
Then there is the Romain Poite factor. It is hard to think of another referee better suited to Northampton's style of play, and the Saints will be delighted if the game breaks up into a pernickety procession of penalties, hindering Leinster's ability to find their flow.
Without the squad resources of their opponents, Northampton are pretty battered after the long season, but that was the case in 2000 also, when they still found the energy to puncture Munster's European dream with a similarly-styled side based around forward muscle.
So, with their own injury issues to concern them, we are far from a guarantee of Leinster receiving the crowning glory their performances this season have deserved. However, irrespective of the result on Saturday, Joe Schmidt can look back on a stunning double title-chasing first season at the helm, based around eight key factors.
After five years of Michael Cheika, a new voice was always going to inject enthusiasm and, while there was a willingness to accommodate what had worked under the previous regime, Schmidt's fresh approach reinvigorated the old guard.
The squad were immediately impressed by training sessions that kept players on their toes and by an innovative game-plan that tested and enhanced their skill-sets.
Schmidt's ability to handle pressure was tested very early on. A rancid run of results that included defeat in Treviso was compounded by the strains of Ireland's Player Management Programme and injuries to key figures such as captain Leo Cullen and prop Stan Wright.
When hysterical elements of the media and web fiends began to question the New Zealander's capacity to handle the step up to the head coach role, Schmidt was entitled to wonder what he had let himself in for.
But, unswerving in his belief that things would come good, he kept his cool and stuck to his principles, which earned the complete respect of his players and the results that would get Leinster's season up and running.
Against Glasgow two weeks ago, Gordon D'Arcy scored a try that looked straightforward at first glance but, when reviewed, revealed a remarkable lead-up. Jamie Heaslip, after lifting his man to secure line-out possession, immediately ripped the ball, broke away and fed D'Arcy.
Using the lifter to rip possession is unheard of as he is ordinarily on binding/blocking duties and it caught the hapless Warriors completely unawares. Perhaps it was off-the-cuff, but under Schmidt and his forwards coach Jono Gibbes, there has been a forensic approach to the minutiae of the game and some of the training ground moves have been breathtaking.
Schmidt also took on the responsibility for defensive organisation following the departure of Kurt McQuilkin with excellent results, while analysis of the opposition has been exhaustive, centring on the neutralisation of their major threats.
Such as against Toulouse in the semi-final, when the electric Vincent Clerc posed a continual threat but was not allowed the freedom he needed to do true damage.
The offload is the rugby term used to describe the ability to keep the ball alive in contact by popping it to a team-mate and is the activity that has characterised Leinster's attacking play this season.
There have been plenty of wrap-arounds and innovative set-plays executed on a 'here's one I prepared earlier' basis, but offloading puts the emphasis on instinctive footballing ability and Leinster have excelled in this regard under Schmidt.
They have all been at it, from Cian Healy right through to Isa Nacewa, with Nathan Hines exhibiting a subtle touch to go with his hard edge. It makes Leinster a nightmare to defend against and is one of the main reasons they are running out in a Heineken Cup final on Saturday.
Lock and Load
All the offloading and back-line innovation in the world is useless if you do not have a platform to work from and after the horror of Toulouse in last year's semi-final defeat, the scrum became a priority.
Under Schmidt, Gibbes and scrum coach Greg Feek, the improvement has been hugely significant and, though aided initially by injury to Stan Wright, it has allowed Mike Ross (who has the distinction of being named on English Premierhsip and Magners League dream teams) to establish himself as a central figure in the Leinster and Ireland sides. Another benefit is the foundation it provides for the back-row to prosper and the effects of that can be seen in how Sean O'Brien and Co have performed this season.
Young and Restless
Although there is a rich seam of experience running through the spine of his side, Schmidt has not been slow to give youth its head. Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock, Eoin O'Malley, David Kearney and Ian Madigan have all come on massively as a result, getting the exposure that enhances their development and appeases their youthful impatience.
As well as catering for the up-and-comers, Schmidt has had to negotiate the minefield of keeping senior stars happy when there are not enough places to accommodate all the players at his disposal.
He has mixed and matched superbly, best demonstrated by the rotation of Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss on a horses-for-courses basis at scrum-half. Similarly with Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings as well as Luke Fitzgerald, Shane Horgan and Fergus McFadden, Schmidt has been able to keep everyone ticking over.
He has got key calls right, such as turning to Heaslip as captain for the home game against Munster last October and a victory that arrested the run of bad results.
Furthermore, his judgment and reading of the requirements in any given situation were demonstrated by his canny decision to leave Heinke van der Merwe on the pitch against Toulouse when originally the South African was brought on as a blood replacement.
Keeping the media onside may not seem like the most critical of a rugby coach's duties but, in addition to being the primary link to supporters, the fourth estate can set message and perception agendas.
Cheika was generally good with the media but was prone to bouts of petulance after disappointing results, and fleeing the scene without expressing his thoughts (as happened in Castres and Galway) did nothing to help coverage.
Schmidt is uniformly popular among the media pack -- courteous, helpful and forthcoming, he has displayed considerable savvy to boot. When the coach was under pressure last September, Brian O'Driscoll's unexpected presence at a routine midweek conference sent out a powerful message of solidarity.
Ultimately, it's a results game, but Schmidt's handling of the media bodes well for his coaching future.