Tuesday 16 January 2018

Schmidt's special ones on threshold of greatness

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Great teams are founded upon great self-belief. The greatest of all are built upon collective belief in adversity.

There may have been no trophy handed out on Saturday, but at a heaving Aviva Stadium Joe Schmidt's Leinster demonstrated forcibly just why this gifted group is on the verge of greatness. There is still much to be done at the Millennium Stadium in three weeks' time to seal the deal but if there are any begrudgers out there, it's time to take stock and drift gently into the good night.

What Munster were circa 2006 Leinster have now become, and the meticulous Schmidt has played a huge part in making Leinster the total entity they now are.

As someone once said, "show me any great coach and I'll show you some pretty useful players". Schmidt will acknowledge the exceptional talent he inherited, but it is his ability to get the best out of this squad that makes Leinster the powerful force they now are.

That individual ability needs little elaboration, but the unit cohesion, the collective desire and, more than anything, the willingness of their star players to stand big when the tide is gushing the other way, makes this group stand out from the European posse.

He would be the last to appoint himself 'the special one' but the coaching ingredient 'Jose' Schmidt brings to the Leinster cause is special.

Players are by nature selfish but great coaches remove any notion of self from the team equation. When Toulouse hit Lansdowne Road running there were Leinster leaders everywhere. Take your pick from Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Jonny Sexton, Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien, Richardt Strauss, Jamie Heaslip or almost any other you care to name.

When the chips were down -- with the defending champions on the front foot and seven points ahead -- there were blue shirts lining up in the race to put bodies on the line. It is that team element you cannot quantify.

When Munster were at their Heineken Cup best, it was the times when a penalty here or a drop goal there kept them in touch in mid-match moments of crisis. For Anthony Foley, Ronan O'Gara and Co then, read Leo Cullen, Sexton and the rest now.

It is a fair comparison but with the proviso that this group has the potential (given the strength in depth) to bypass Munster as our leading light.

Only time will tell, but just as we owe immense gratitude to Declan Kidney, Alan Gaffney and Tony McGahan for all they achieved down south, equally after just one season must the input of Schmidt and Jono Gibbes in succession to Michael Cheika in D4 be acknowledged now.

A successful team is a happy one and this Leinster group plays with a smile on its face, even in adversity.

If Toulouse represent the Real Madrid of Heineken Cup rugby, then Leinster are the Barcelona and O'Driscoll the Lionel Messi. What marks players like Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta out is the extraordinary work ethic without the ball. That stems from the team principle Pep Guardiola has inculcated at Barca and this same attitude has been fostered at Leinster by Schmidt.

Both teams are pleasing on the eye but equally can mix it in getting down and getting dirty when that need arises.

Barca may have to scrap again on Wednesday at the Camp Nou, just as Leinster did at the Aviva. Great teams have great players have great coaches.

Take a second Heineken Cup in three years and opinions on the subject of greatness will become fact. On Saturday, in a rugby classic, Leinster edged ever closer to that mantle.

They stand on the threshold, as not for the first time all roads lead to Cardiff, where the sea of red of '06 will be replaced by a sea of blue five years on. Sweet dreams are made of this.

Irish Independent

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