Wednesday 24 January 2018

David Kelly: Arrogance the biggest threat to Leinster

Schmidt has troops on high alert against taking Cardiff danger lightly

David Kelly

David Kelly

If we've learned one thing this week, it is that Gavin Henson is unlikely to ever so shamelessly let team-mates down again.

That should be easy enough -- it's highly unlikely that he'll ever have any in the near future.

Look beyond Henson's predictably sad implosion and you have to question what Cardiff Blues were at, letting their team go on a bender just hours after a 31-3 defeat to the mighty Glasgow, and just a week before the biggest game of their existence.

Now it is quite possible that this game could be their last in the big time. Tied into a tenancy at a soulless soccer stadium out of town, Cardiff are haemorrhaging cash and discarding playing staff with an alacrity Henson reserved for ice cubes on last weekend's fateful flight.

At Thomond Park last month, several Cardiff players were gleefully telling Irish counterparts that they couldn't wait to leave.

Contrast Cardiff to Leinster, where the intense competition for places was reflected in the rueful reactions yesterday of in-form players such as Shane Jennings and Devin Toner as they were overlooked for starting berths.

That intense competition, in stark contrast to a motley crew of mercenaries who are gagging to catch the first chopper out of Cardiff, will be one of the key defining factors underpinning what should be a Leinster cruise into semi-final territory for a fourth successive season.


If anything, it will inure them against a complacency that may perhaps inevitably attach itself to such overwhelming favourites.

"Places are hard to come by at the moment and that is a motivating factor as well," insists captain Leo Cullen, "and you have to focus on your own basics, that we are mentally in the right place."

Leinster only need a cursory examination of their recent past to engage with a painful occurrence of hubris on this ground in the knockout stages of this competition.

Nine years ago under Matt Williams, Leinster had ousted Biarritz in the last eight and were paired with Perpignan in a Dublin 4 semi-final that most expected them to win en route to a supposed all-Irish Lansdowne Road final.

"I do remember the semi-final in 2003 against Perpignan," grimaces Cullen sharply. "And not many people gave them a chance coming over."

As a coach, Joe Schmidt lives with that fear daily, notwithstanding the immense faith entrusted in his European champions.

"Any team I have been involved with, there is always that chance," he says. "Sometimes you get stung. Sometimes you get away with it in the end and think: 'how did we play so badly yet still manage to survive?'"

His own recent history of such indignity, embracing his term as assistant coach at Clermont, is even more contemporary than that of his captain.

"There was one particular day a couple of years back," he recalls. "Castres, who were down the bottom of the Top 14, came down to Clermont. We were runaway leaders in the Top 14, we had beaten Toulouse home and away.

"It was towards the end of the season and we rested maybe two or three guys, but it was still a good team we had out but they scored a four-try bonus point against us!

"That is why people really enjoy sport. They love to have that unknown. It keeps people on their seat.

"That's even the case for our supporters, the 49,000 or so, because I know there are some tickets still floating around that have come back from Cardiff.

"Those supporters will come expecting a performance from us, but still not knowing what the result might be because that is sport. That's part of the allure of getting along and supporting your team and being as vociferous as you can."

And yet the Leinster supporters will presumably demand nothing more from their European champions than the impressive 12-point margin of victory that is the minimum handicap offered by most bookmakers.

Centre Jamie Roberts and Grand Slam-winning captain Sam Warburton are inestimable losses for Cardiff, but if any nation is adept at mixing the sublime with the ridiculous within a week of each other, then it is a Welsh one.

"There is a degree of danger whenever you underestimate an opponent," adds Schmidt. "We are too focused on what we need to achieve and we know the history of Cardiff. They went to Toulon two years ago and no one gave them any sort of a chance.


"They were down even in that game early on and they won it with something to spare in the end. I remember Xavier (Rush) was inspirational for them that day, and being the new father he is, he will be motivated to come here and do a very good job.

"He is the sort of player that can inspire a group of other men to follow him, and if he gets up and running there are dangers. There are a lot of guys who can run off him. Bradley Davies and Gethin Jenkins are very good ball carriers.

"Across the board, there are an array of arms that they bring -- with Dan Parks' ability to put the ball behind you and their ability to contest in the air with guys like Alex Cuthbert and Leigh Halfpenny coming forward."

Leinster, quite simply, just have more ammunition -- a World Cup-winning second-row, Brian O'Driscoll, the world's form full-back, a quality back-row and a decisive half-back combination.

Just two months on from the heartbreaking defeat to Wales at the same venue, Ireland's European champions can gain some measure of revenge for Leigh Halfpenny's late penalty win.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent

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