Tony Ward: Hopes raised for a Leinster miracle
O’Driscoll, Kearney and Fitzgerald’s return has given Leinster renewed confidence
Published 12/01/2013 | 05:00
Leinster may not appreciate the comparison but, as Munster have proved in the past, when it comes to the Heineken Cup, miracles can happen. Joe Schmidt suggested in the immediate aftermath of the disappointing defeat to Clermont that it would indeed require a miracle if Leinster were to dig themselves out of a hole largely of their own making.
I don't think any fair-minded person making rational judgment on Leinster in the tournament to date could argue against the fact that the most complete team in the pool – Clermont – is set to take the automatic qualifying place for the quarter-finals and, with it, that all-important home advantage.
Unfortunately for the reigning champions, their tilt at three-in-a-row and a slot in the business end of the competition is now in the hands of others.
To that end, I agree with the line being pedalled of controlling what can be controlled and, beyond that, 'Que Sera Sera'.
Today is about attention to detail, about getting the fundamentals right or, as Schmidt sums it in a single word, "accuracy".
What has endeared Leinster to me, and I'm sure to so many others in recent times, especially since the affable Kiwi took control, has been the ability for great players to re-engage with the most basic skills learned when they were young and, in a sense, reinvent themselves individually and collectively as a potent attacking force.
Michael Cheika and Jonno Gibbes worked on the mean streak and, in tandem with Kurt McQuilkin, developed a level of intensity without the ball that took Leinster ahead of their great southern rivals at that time.
Enter Schmidt and, given the attacking material to work with, the rest is now history.
The mess in which they now find themselves presents an opportunity to add significantly to that history.
It began in Edinburgh last week. The return of Rob Kearney, Brian O'Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald has provided the most timely boost.
Kearney and O'Driscoll are, by dint of personality and playing style, natural leaders, while Fitzgerald, although already a Lion, hasn't even dipped into that vast reservoir of talent lying within.
Having all three back on the training paddock and in the dressing-room on match day lends to pre-game confidence.
By natural extension, that confidence translates to the fans, making for the type of intimidating atmosphere that has made Thomond Park such a hostile environment for visiting teams over the years. The RDS has the capacity to be like that.
Of the returning trio, Kearney was the busiest and most impressive against Edinburgh but, on the few occasions he got the ball, Fitzgerald provided that fleeting glimpse of the pace and ability to change direction we know to be there.
As for O'Driscoll? It's not so much what he does (and that's special) but it's what he makes others do in his presence.
Great leaders in any code are those who demand of others nothing more than they demand consistently of themselves.
Gordon D'Arcy is a different rugby animal with O'Driscoll alongside. In Murrayfield last week, it was as if the troubles of the world had been lifted and it was back to the free-running days of old. He still does (and must continue to do) those all-important hard yards, through that low centre of gravity and extraordinary leg drive, but with O'Driscoll in situ the most decorated midfield duo in the game are at their 'Batman and Robin' best.
In a similar vein is the Sean O'Brien factor. Whether he wears six, seven or eight is irrelevant; just having him there is all that matters.
Provided the line-out fires and the scrum continues to squeeze, then in O'Brien, Cian Healy, D'Arcy and Richardt Strauss, the key personnel are in place to make that vital forward momentum.
And what of the Scarlets in all of this? Not for a minute are we writing them off. Simon Easterby's organisational ability as a player needs little elaboration from me.
In a sense, the pressure is off the Welsh region but, as illustrated by Ulster forcibly last weekend, relentless intensity will eventually pay dividends and, for Leinster, that dividend must be a five-point return.
Of course, the primary objective must be winning but anything less than the maximum five from the RDS and it's curtains for 2013.
Can they do it? Yes. Will they? Well, if the miracle of a place in the last eight is to happen in Exeter, then the first ingredient in that recipe for survival must be added today.
We accept the premise of walk before you run but on this must-win (by scoring four or more tries) occasion, Leinster, who have a full-strength squad for the first time this season, must hit Dublin 4 running.
That or the dream is dead.
Some rules more equal than others
It's that grumpy time of the year, so here's a couple of bugbears as the return of the Heineken Cup lights up our screens.
Watch from the kick-off – and for every subsequent restart – the number of times players from the side who are kicking take off at a rate of knots ahead of the kicker.
Seldom, if ever, is it picked up by referee or touch judges, never mind penalised.
And to add to that old pet hate of the amount of time wasted and penalties conceded at what is now called scrum time, observe how seldom, if ever, the scrum-half feeding puts the ball down the centre line of the scrum.
At best, it's under the knees of the front-row on a diagonal line to the second-row.
Yet, dare the poor hooker (if there is such a thing) deviate even a fraction on his line-out throw out of touch, a scrum is awarded followed by guaranteed possession (courtesy of the crooked feed) to the opposition.
I emphasise this latter point because of the obvious difficulty of throwing the ball into a line-out straight on a wet and windy day.
Yet, for the scrum (where inclement conditions are largely irrelevant), anything goes.