Schmidt targets launch pad of Challenge glory
Leinster boss insists ‘secondary’ European trophy now the priority
They haven't gone away you know.
Leinster are operating untypically beneath the shadows of the Heineken Cup quarter-finals – there was a notably low-key buzz to preparations this week, not helped by the IRFU dumping the Declan Kidney story into the mix.
Three times Heineken Cup champions in the past four years, it was easy to understand Isa Nacewa's initial reaction once his side had been eliminated from their pool in January and evicted into rugby's version of the Europa League.
"Season over," he muttered.
Leinster have had plenty of time to absorb that disappointment and, as other sides in its recent history have demonstrated – chiefly their bete noir, Clermont, and also Harlequins – Europe's ugly sister can still prove a launching pad to renewal.
Leinster's task, with not only a potential money-spinning RDS semi-final and potential Lansdowne Road final to come, has been to refocus their energies on, belatedly, completing the domestic and European double their supporters crave, even if there may not be a fourth Heineken star available.
"A European trophy is a European trophy," says head coach Joe Schmidt succinctly. "It's maybe not the one we initially would have liked but it's still one we'd dearly love to win now."
Despite its secondary status, the pedigree remaining in the strongest ever Challenge Cup quarter-final line-up, backboned by the arrival of two other eliminated Heineken Cup teams, indicates that it will be a more than worthy addition to the trophy cabinet.
Both European champions from last year, Leinster and Amlin Challenge Cup holders Biarritz, are among the last eight survivors amongst whom are included four former Heineken Cup champions with 10 titles between them – Toulouse (4), Leinster (3), Wasps (2) and Bath (1).
Contrast that to a Heineken Cup quarter-final line-up which includes only three former champions, with a total of just five crowns.
Two of the Amlin qualifiers – Bath and Wasps – have both previously completed the double of Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup triumphs and, such is the quality of this season's contenders that Gloucester – Challenge Cup winners in 2006 – are the only club in the Amlin last eight yet to appear in a Heineken Cup final.
These sides meet for the first time since a Twickenham pool game in 2009, in hindsight a pivotal moment for both team's fortunes, with Leinster then stirring themselves to become a European superpower while Wasps, Heineken kingpins themselves under Warren Gatland in 2004 and Ian McGeechan in 2007, lurched into a slump that almost encapsulated relegation and bankruptcy.
Over 33,000 watched a January pool game that descended into farce after injury to Leinster's Stan Wright prompted uncontested scrums, while Wasps bizarrely messed up a late try-scoring chance that allowed the province to escape with a crucial bonus point that kept them on course for the knock-out stages.
Wasps haven't appeared in the Heineken Cup since; while Leinster, via bloodgate and a remorseless destruction of Munster, achieved the first of three titles in an unprecedented four-year run of untrammelled success.
Wasps have resuscitated their fortunes such that they lie on the brink of returning to the top table in Europe via the English Premiership but the fact that they meet Leinster on equal terms this evening is purely illusory.
Despite the hiccup in the RDS last Saturday against Ulster, when their line-speed in defence was virtually non-existent, consequently hampering any attempt at consistent phased play, Leinster are clear favourites to emerge.
Despite missing the suspended Brian O'Driscoll and witnessing Eoin O'Malley succumb to a late fitness test, the pairing of Fergus McFadden and Gordon D'Arcy in midfield is hardly the weakest combination.
And, even if some may worry about Dave Kearney's defence on the wing against the free-scoring Christian Wade, the key for Leinster will be a collective willingness to engage in a more aggressive defence than demonstrated against Ulster.
"We didn't have much line-speed at any speed during the game and we didn't really put any pressure on Ulster or close them down," admitted captain Leo Cullen.
"Ulster have got some good ball-carriers, but I think it was a knock-out effect from our lack of aggression in the first place. It's something we'll hopefully be able to bring this week."
Up front, Devin Toner partners skipper Cullen at lock, a key area for Leinster to remain firm, while Kevin McLaughlin is set to make his 90th appearance for the province in an impressive back-row featuring the returning Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.
For Wasps, denuded of James Haskell on the blindside, Marco Wentzel captains the side from the second-row, where he packs down alongside England international Tom Palmer, with Joe Launchbury shifting out to flanker.
Ashley Johnson starts at No 8 this week, and Nicky Robinson moves into the out-half shirt as the home side seek to discard a losing run that has handicapped their quest to reach the play-offs and qualify for the Heineken Cup.
"There's been a great buzz around the club this week and everyone's looking forward to testing ourselves against one of the best sides in European rugby," said coach Dai Young.
"Leinster have been incredibly consistent over the last few years and this is a big challenge for our developing side but one everyone is up for it."
With Leinster's supreme quality self-evident, it is the technical aspects which must occupy them; apart from line-speed, the other principal concern will be the efficiency of ruck ball in attack presented to the three-quarters via the in-form Ian Madigan.
"It will be the quality of our ruck ball," said Schmidt.
"Because we know that the quality of Ian's passes are up to it, we would be pretty confident that we could see a little bit more fluency than last weekend where Ulster, to be fair, were better than us."
Cullen sums up Leinster's remorseless desire to ensure their residence at the latter stages of secondary competition is a merely temporary inconvenience.
"We need to bring a performance," he said. "If we get a good performance, I'm sure we'll get a positive result. That's the important thing for us."