Schmidt has faith in young guns to shine in absence of Ireland players

Peter Breen

The countless hours on the training field expending energy and honing bodies for the rigours of a duel campaign are all but over.

When Rhys Ruddock leads the Leinster team out on to the Donnybrook pitch this evening, it will conclude a gruelling month and a half of preparation.

While the pre-season is punishing and the lack of game opportunities can be frustrating for players, the conditioning is essential if they're to survive the high impact/high intensity demands of the game.

The pre-season obviously presents challenges for the coaches, trainers and medics as well. They must look to individualise player needs, include variety and progression in the gym and on the field as well as knitting together the squad to include new players -- and with the World Cup build up, this has been a bit more difficult than it usually is!

Joe Schmidt is seasoned enough to value the hard work players do in the pre-season, particularly in a World Cup year where so many young players will be needed to bolster the Leinster ranks. The Leinster head coach admits that the whole of the Leinster backroom staff are now looking forward to the young players performing during the 'Bank of Ireland Series' which starts tonight at Donnybrook (kick off 7pm) against the Melbourne Rebels.

"From a players' perspective, they train to play, but I think that also applies to the coaches, we get as impatient as the players during the pre-season, looking forward to playing matches to measure how we're going," Schmidt said.

"We're all looking forward to the start of the Bank of Ireland series, but one thing's certain, with teams of the calibre of the Melbourne Rebels and Northampton Saints, we won't be easing ourselves into the season -- it'll be tough from the start."

The New Zealander believes that the opportunity to play against a Super 15 team in The Rebels will be a valuable experience for the squad, especially younger players, who are sure to benefit from the exposure to a different playing style.

"We will have a young squad with a base of experienced players who would have featured reasonably often last year and I'm looking forward to seeing some of the new signings as well.

"When Melbourne initially expressed an interest in playing us we felt it would provide a great opportunity to expose the players to a different team. They have some outstanding talent in their squad and though they may have been disappointed with where they finished in the Super 15, I really think that they will progress to become a very strong side.

"In the likes of All Black prop Greg Somerville and Welsh number eight Gareth Delve they have two seasoned powerful forwards who will ask a lot of questions of our younger forwards.

"Michael Lipman is another player with European experience, but I think a player who might really catch the Leinster public's attention is Lloyd Johansson who is a massive fella in their midfield. There should be a number of players on either side who will spark the public's interest I'm sure."

From a Leinster perspective, two of the recently recruited players who have arrived in from Super 15 -- Mat Berquist and Steven Sykes -- are expected to feature at some point, though Schmidt stated that he will make substitutions during the match to give game time to an extended panel.

"We'll take the opportunity to play an enlarged squad with a few extra players because, between the bumps and bruises in the squad as well as those who are away on international duty with Ireland, we need to give some of the lesser experienced players the opportunity to play top-class opponents.

"The aim on weeks like this is to try a few new combinations and just have a look at players really, but I have faith in the younger guys' attitude and willingness to make an impression.

"They have applied themselves with real intensity in training and the work that they do at this time of the year will hopefully provide them with the base to maintain that same level of conditioning and performance through the season.

"With the way the international calendar works out, there will be opportunities for a number of players to stake claims for a starting place."

The exuberance of youth will get its chance to shine tonight and over the coming weeks but Schmidt is pragmatic enough to know not to expect too much too soon.


"A number of the less experienced Academy players will find these games a big step up.

"Physically," he added, "they're not too badly equipped and I think that the likes of Andrew Conway and Brendan Macken will have learned a lot from their experiences at the U20 World Championships.

"That can have a positive knock-on effect for the Academy players. The application of what they learn at this stage in their careers is important, and I know that they are all excited about the opportunities that await."

•Tickets for tonight's Bank of Ireland Series challenge match between Leinster v Melbourne Rebels in Donnybrook (kick-off 7pm) are on sale from Ticketmaster outlets and on the gate.