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We'll chase every point

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21 February 2013; Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt during a press conference ahead of their Celtic League 2012/13, Round 16, match against Scarlets on Saturday. Leinster Rugby Press Conference, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

21 February 2013; Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt during a press conference ahead of their Celtic League 2012/13, Round 16, match against Scarlets on Saturday. Leinster Rugby Press Conference, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

21 February 2013; Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt during a press conference ahead of their Celtic League 2012/13, Round 16, match against Scarlets on Saturday. Leinster Rugby Press Conference, UCD, Belfield, Dublin. Picture credit: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

CHARACTER is a funny thing. You can plan and plot, but when fate intervenes you just have to dig deep.

When the Ireland internationals departed at the end of January, the province faced into a crunch four-week period with two daunting trips to Wales sandwiched between back-to-back home fixtures.

Compounded by the absence of key experienced personnel was the unfortunate loss through injury of Isa Nacewa and Heinke van der Merwe – overseas players whose use is maximised during the various international windows. Thankfully a few experienced troops remained in the group with Leo Cullen at the helm.

So it was a case of backing the future once more and by praising youth, as the old Irish saying goes, they blossomed. Of course, tender years don't automatically mean an absence of experience. And the manner in which a number of Academy and other young players had stepped up in recent times would have given the management some comfort – even without stellar names.

But to garner 19 points from a possible 20 must have been a dream at the start of February?

"It would have been beyond my expectations, if I'm honest," Leinster coach Joe Schmidt reflected as the squad enjoyed a well-earned rest this week after their recent exertions.

"Don't get me wrong, we have a great deal of faith in the squad that we have, including the younger crop who have stepped up recently from the Academy.

 

Character

"But gaining a near-maximum return was a major effort and said a lot about the character and work ethic that some of the non-internationals and young players have.

"Before this block of games we knew that we would be facing big challenges against big, physical and experienced sides, who would be a lot closer to full strength than we would be.

"It was vital that we kept pace with Ulster and the Glasgow Warriors because the chasing pack around is very tight behind us in the Pro12 table.

"Thankfully all of the hard work during the period paid off and the players went into this short break in a positive frame of mind on the back of some really good performances."

A blistering start last weekend saw the province roar into a 19-3 lead after just 18 minutes away to the Dragons.

"We lacked fluidity and it was the least cohesive game of the four," Schmidt reflected. "There was almost a sense of presumption after the opening quarter that we were going to win. The Dragons fought back really well and our lack of cohesion made that a little easier for them.

"Obviously there were a lot of players back from National Camp this week, but it was great for Sean (Cronin) and Dave Kearney to score two tries. Sean has a great turn of pace and his second try was a carbon copy of the first; sprinting clear in the corner. So, in a sense, two of our wingers got all of the tries!

"In winning all four games it allows us to keep the pressure on the league leaders. But it also allows those who've performed during this period to keep the pressure on the national players when they return.

"We'll probably miss a few of the lads who feature prominently during the Six Nations for the Glasgow game (on March 23 in the RDS), but everyone should hopefully be back in tow for the visit of Ulster the following week."

Among the returnees, the New Zealander expects to welcome back Kevin McLaughlin, Nacewa and Van der Merwe. With the province confirming the arrival of two-time Premiership golden boot winner Jimmy Gopperth this summer, plans for next year are well down the track with further confirmation of signings and re-signings imminent.

But the Leinster coach has been impressed by the internal progressions of a number of players.

"If you look from the front row, the likes of Jack McGrath and Jack O'Connell have both done really well on the loosehead side, while Michael Bent and Jamie Hagan were powerful forces in sharing the tighthead slot.

"It was good to have Sean back last weekend, but the previous weekend against The Scarlets we had Aaron Dundon getting the man of the match award, which is a further indicator that the guys in the shadow have stepped up a gear and are taking their opportunities.

"Ben Marshall showed his athleticism and gained some valuable experience while Mark Flanagan got back onto the field for a couple of games after being out with injury for the first half of the season.

"John Cooney was sharp every time he was introduced and Ian Madigan was his usual consistent self, bringing an ever-improving kicking game into play. Noel Reid, Andrew Goodman and Brendan Macken made plenty of headway while it was great to welcome back Eoin O'Malley after his long-term injuries. Dave Kearney also went really well covering full-back and wing, along with Fionn Carr and Andrew Conway. So there are lots of positives."

And Schmidt's message for the closing two months of the campaign? "We're at the business end now and we're going to need to chase every point that we possibly can.

"We're in two competitions and we'd love to go as far as we can in both of them. So we will be as prepared as we can be starting with our next two top-of-the-table games.

"Hopefully, game by game, all of our hard work will pay off at the end of May."


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