Monday 20 November 2017

I feel more pressure than ever -- Schmidt

With the big houses of Europe watching and noisy neighbours coming to town, Joe Schmidt's head is a ticking clock.

Maybe the sight of those blood-red shirts gambolling down Lansdowne Road this Saturday will jolt Leinster into something thrillingly contrary but, just over a week away from commencing their three-in-a-row Heineken Cup bid, Schmidt admits he has yet to find his team.

Last Friday's 34-6 Pro12 trouncing by Connacht shone a light in some pretty uncomfortable places and, if some were inclined to file it away as one of those eccentric aberrations of early winter, the Leinster coach was not among them.

"I certainly personally feel more pressure than we've ever had in my three years (with Leinster)," he reflected with surprising candour yesterday. "The previous two years I kind of felt we had a bit more of a run-in. We're a little bit jumbled at the moment and that's something that we have to address.

"The players have to work really really hard this week to make sure that they're all very much in tune with how and what we're trying to do."

Injuries

The Munster game needs to be a trigger for Leinster, according to Schmidt, because their Pro12 form has lacked compelling impetus despite recording three successive victories prior to that trip to Galway.

The coach does acknowledge, however, that circumstance dictated he made 11 changes in personnel for the Connacht game and that selection was then impeded by the loss of three players to injury inside half an hour.

"For continuity, it's a massive disadvantage for us," he observed. "We've made a minimum of seven changes per week to our team.

"I was asked recently about the English and French perspective of us being advantaged -- well, you know to make that many changes and expect continuity is very, very difficult.

"But that doesn't excuse poor performances. The Leinster jersey demands the same application and physical commitment, week to week.

"We've got a very short time-frame now to find that continuity. We're going to have to make sure that we can at least put a good performance together this week against Munster.

"I've been relatively open about being worried that we don't have momentum. We've been in worse positions in the league table coming into the Munster game -- we were five losses out of six, including the pre-season, in my first year. Can we turn it around? I'm certainly hopeful that we can.

"But we've never been in the injury situation that we've currently got. And a number of those long-term guys are the guys that have really come on and given us a real depth to our squad.

"We've only usually had one or two (injuries). Sean O'Brien -- he's a fairly handy guy that you'd want to have around and about at this time of the year. So with those guys out, I think there's a real onus on the key players that formed the skeleton of the team over the last few years.

"It's a key time for them to really step up and provide the glue and the intensity that the guys can really gel around them and we can get the performance that we want against Munster."

And if that doesn't come on Saturday? "Yes, I'll be worried as much as I will, I guess (smiling)."

A decision on Gordon D'Arcy's rib injury will be made on Friday, with Schmidt describing himself as "hopeful, but not confident". There was better news about Rob Kearney. The Ireland full-back is now expected to be available for the Heineken Cup trip to Scarlets on October 20 after initial fears that his back injury might sideline him for six weeks.

Schmidt insists that any post-mortem for last Friday's collapse shouldn't neglect the quality of the opposition.

"I take my hat off to Connacht," he said. "They delivered on the night, they played really, really well. They've got some good players who, if they're interested and they're up for it, I think anyone could go there and struggle.

"You go there at your peril if you're not fully committed. That's not normally a worry for us when we come up against the red jersey, because guys know each other really well; they're friendly with each other -- it's almost like brothers.

"The last guy you want to get in front of you is your brother and there is that real derby about it, which is a positive thing, I know, for both them and us in preparation for the Heineken Cup."

Victory over Munster will always supply more ballast than mere league points, but the coach would welcome those points nonetheless. He doesn't much like Leinster's current geography in the Pro12. "We can't afford to drift too far out of the top four," he reflected.

"When you look at the table, there's no one team that's got a kick on everyone else. So somewhere jammed in amongst that melee is Leinster, and it's an uncomfortable place. You want to be jammed towards the top."

Leinster captain Leo Cullen is hoping the Connacht defeat will register as "a wake-up call".

"We got a right hiding; we didn't turn up physically for the game," he admitted. "Connacht just brought a different level of intensity. You could see it in their carries and they were just so dominant in collisions.

"This week we have a chance to rectify it. I think there's always a bit of a lift in lads coming up to a big game in the Aviva and coming up towards Europe as well.

"We have a squad of 35-40 players and you want to be able to rely on every member to man up on a weekend. But we didn't get that level of physicality in Galway that we would expect to be a kind of baseline standard for us.

"So you would hope that that was maybe a good wake-up call for us. We didn't play great against Llanelli in our first game, we won three games in a row then, even though we weren't quite at the right level. We were just about doing enough to win the games. But we're heading into a very important block of games now."

Consistency will be the least they ask of themselves.

"You don't want to be a team that's up one week and down the next," said Cullen. "That was maybe the Leinster of old, but we would hope that those days are gone."

Irish Independent

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