Friday 23 March 2018

Schmidt happy with job well done


ON a remarkable weekend of Heineken Cup action for the Irish provinces, champions Leinster found themselves in the unusual position of being something of an after-thought.

In terms of drama, the matches involving Connacht, Ulster and Munster far surpassed this routine, home quarter-final-clinching win over Montpellier and, for once, Leinster were the Ringo Starr of the four-piece, providing a solid backbeat while the other provinces hogged centre stage.

This was not Leinster's fault and they were thoroughly professional as they set about dismantling Montpellier in difficult conditions, but any tension was alleviated by the fact that, despite periods of sustained pressure from the visitors, the result was never in doubt.

It was one of those typical French away-day performances when, except for intermittent bursts, fervour did not match the talent or bulk at their disposal.

At times, the Montpellier backs were on the Howard Marks side of casual, strolling back into the defensive line while fiddling with their shorts as though secretly texting a girlfriend -- or dialling a taxi for the airport.

They were flagging from the off as Leinster scored early through Sean O'Brien, bagged another one from the excellent Rob Kearney and, with Fergus McFadden banging over the kicks despite a horrible, gusting wind, were 20-0 to the good by half-time.

The champions began the second half with a Cian Healy try after a fabulous counter by Isa Nacewa but could add no further score, while Montpellier's bizarre decision to kick for goal through Martin Bustos for their sole score elicited predictably mocking cheers from the bumper crowd.

The most memorable passage of play was the almost quarter-of-an-hour siege Montpellier placed on the Leinster line when, roared on by their supporters, the home side displayed indomitable defence to hold out even when second-row Damien Browne was, rather harshly, sent to the bin.

However, while the contest may have failed to quicken the pulse in the manner of the other three involving Irish provinces, there were still significant aspects to ponder -- for Leinster and for Ireland.

Having rolled it in Glasgow, and played on, Sexton (below) was monitored during the week before being named in the team on Friday.

Whether this was done to throw Montpellier off their prep or not, the decision was taken to pull Sexton before kick-off as a precautionary measure. It was a sensible and welcome move from an Ireland Six Nations perspective.

"We knew he could possibly play," said coach Joe Schmidt, "but we wanted to show some faith in Ian Madigan and we wanted to make sure Jonny didn't get into further trouble with injuries."

And the other injuries?

Nothing serious, say Leinster. Healy, Kearney and O'Brien were all replaced early but, similar to Sexton not starting, these were precautionary moves.

"It was about looking after players," explained Schmidt.

"Sean O'Brien took a ding on the shoulder, Rob Kearney rolled his ankle. Cian's leg got caught awkwardly, but he was jumping around afterwards, he's fine. He could have probably played on but there didn't seem to be any point."

Updates on Luke Fitzgerald's neck injury are due from the Irish camp tomorrow.

What about the form of Leinster's Six Nations players?

Encouraging. Kearney looked very sharp, scoring a wonderful try and running hard, fast and intelligently throughout.

Gordon D'Arcy was equally impressive in midfield, full of deft touches, clever angles and assurance while, in the pack, Jamie Heaslip had another big game, Sean O'Brien went well and Healy ran powerfully at loose-head.

Mike Ross made a big impact in the scrum in the second half while captain Leo Cullen (including one remarkable penalty block down) showed why Ireland may want him to delay surgery on his Achilles problem. Sean Cronin continued his excellent run this season with a lively turn off the bench.

What about Fergus McFadden?

McFadden continues to look a quality player, although his versatility is working against him.

Asked to fill in on the right wing, the man from the Curragh Plains turned in a typically strong performance but it is the No 13 jersey that the 25-year-old is chasing in the Six Nations and his long-term international future undoubtedly lies in midfield -- ideally at inside centre, where his strengths are best suited.

And the others?

Isaac Boss was excellent again at scrum-half while the precocious Ian Madigan did well on a tricky day for 10s, producing some nice touches and sweet passes.

Browne and Rhys Ruddock -- the subject of transfer talk to Munster last week -- were robust up front but it was not a great day for Jamie Hagan, gone by half-time in his first Heineken Cup game.

"It was a tough day at the office for Jamie," said Schmidt. "He was up against a very strong man and there were a couple of times he got Jamie up and pretty horizontal.

"That's tough, but it's part of trying to invest some time in him and some growth and he will get both those things from it. He took an early knock, when he got his head down too early in the tackle, and he fought through that as well.

"There were times in the chase line that he needed to work a bit harder and there were a couple of times he actually got himself in really good defensive position to put guys back when we were holding out on our line."

With Fionn Carr reduced to playing just a bit-part role from off the bench, their ill-advised decisions to relocate from Connacht were highlighted once more.

Both Carr and Hagan are talented players who need game time to flourish and, while the pair of them are sure to get more of that during the period that the Six Nations contingent are away, it is too late for their Wolfhounds/representative aspirations this season.

Was not getting the bonus point an issue?

Not really. It would have been nice to get the four tries but as Schmidt pointed out, there was no panic for the bonus on a day when a win was adequate.

"It is about finishing in the top four," explained Schmidt.

"There is actually no real, noticeable advantage between finishing one or four (in the seedings) because you get your home quarter-final and it is a toss-up for the semi-final. So, for us it was just about getting the win."

Which Leinster did with no great fuss, and they are well set for the knockout stages -- you wouldn't bet against them.

LEINSTER -- R Kearney (F Carr 64); F McFadden, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; I Madigan, I Boss (E Reddan 57); C Healy (H Van der Merwe 48), R Strauss (S Cronin 57), J Hagan (M Ross h-t); L Cullen (D Toner 58), D Browne; R Ruddock, S O'Brien (S Jennings 58), J Heaslip.

MONTPELLIER -- JB Peyras (T Combezou 54); T Nagusa, Y Audrin, P Bosch, M Bustos Moyano; F Trinh Duc (S Fernandez 57), J Tomas; N Leleimalefaga (JG Figallo 59), A Creevy (E Van Vuuren 54), G Jgenti (M Bustos 54); H Hancke, J Tuineau (M DeMarco 57); F Quedraogo, M Gorgodze, A Tulou (V Bost 70).

REF -- N Paterson (Scotland).

Irish Independent

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