Tuesday 23 January 2018

Sky's the limit for carefree Leinster

Shane Jennings' return to the Leinster squad had increased Joe Schmidt's backrow options for the end of the season.
Shane Jennings' return to the Leinster squad had increased Joe Schmidt's backrow options for the end of the season.

A buttermilk sky may have enveloped Leinster's training session in UCD yesterday, but it didn't seem like there were any clouds in their world.

All its hungry constituents are fighting fit for Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final with multiple champions, Toulouse.

A game of bulldog indicates the carefree nature of the squad's preparations; yet the innocent childish larks have a serious side. As any coach knows, the playground favourite of old instils strength and unity into its teams. To every thing a purpose, even amid the giggles and high-pierced squeals.

Not even the gentlest rib-tickling revealed even a remote concern within Leinster ranks at the appointment of Declan Kidney's bete noire, Dave Pearson, as the chief whistler for the eagerly awaited, sold-out Lansdowne Road contest.

You wouldn't believe this is the same referee who so sorely tested Brian O'Driscoll's patience during Ireland's defeat to France in the Six Nations championship; yet, according to anyone within Leinster circles, Pearson is the most misunderstood Englishman to visit these shores since Cromwell.


Leinster's feathers are seemingly incapable of ruffling.

Last Saturday in Aironi, Joe Scmhidt's awesome outfit maintained their eager double hunt by fielding an impressively populated team of mostly Irish-qualified players -- Nathan Hines was the odd one out -- and thoughts now turn to the visit of the French aristocrats.

Last season, their destruction of the Leinster scrum, behind which Jonathan Sexton was absent through injury, came on home soil; this time, they must travel, minus several of their forward battalion and against opponents blithely unaffected by injury (with deference to the long-term absentee, Rob Kearney).

Shane Jennings' return to action two weeks ago against Ulster could not have been more timely as his side prepare for this season's defining denouement; now, an even bigger battle than the one encountered by troublesome knee cartilage difficulties could be ensuring his berth in the starting XV.

Sidelined as his team laid waste to his erstwhile employers Leicester in that titanic quarter-final earlier this month, Leinster ensured that his absence was not as deleterious as had been feared.

He could have been forgiven for housing mixed feelings when embracing his team's triumph.

"Not at all, no. It was brilliant," Jennings says. "That's the way we want it. The more lads we have fit, the better.

"We would love if Rob was here with us as well. We've got to get everybody fit and if that's a problem for the coaches, happy days.

"No matter what lads go out there, we're all gunning for the same thing. We all prepare just as hard as each other and we're all behind each other, so it's certainly not that way."

A steady erosion of cartilage from his knee, beginning against Connacht at the start of the campaign, continuing beyond Christmas in the home game against Aironi and then in an 'A' game, has tempered his proverbial bravura.

Hence, he was over-looked by Kidney and uncertain as to his involvement -- if any, at this late stage -- in the coach's World Cup plans, Jennings' attentions are focused fully on his club's twin title tilt.

"The body is good, it's great," he enthuses. "A couple of bumps and knocks from the weekend but I'm delighted to be back and be involved, so it's great. Mentally, I was pretty close to starting against Leicester.

"But physically, I probably wasn't. I was pushing myself to try and get there. It was kind of a very frustrating couple of weeks because I wasn't due to be out for that long and things like that.

"It just wasn't getting right, so unfortunately I wasn't right and it was the right call. Thankfully, the lads did very, very well so I've another opportunity to maybe get involved again.

"It would have been tough to make Leicester though -- I hadn't played at all. Fortunately I got some time against Ulster and Aironi, so it's been great. I'm in a lot better shape and I've good training behind me now in preparation for this one."

Much of this week will be concentrated on exhaustive analysis; the Toulouse back-row is liable to house any number of options and Leinster must master anything thrown at them.

"They've a number of combinations they can throw out. They've a couple of young guys who have come through now, who are very, very good players.

"Then, you've the guys who, kind of, people don't give credit to, like Picamoles or Raynaud or Lamboley and then obviously Bouilhou is their line-out runner.

"Then Dusautoir is a quality player, just coming back as well. They've got so many combinations and they're all good. It's a really good challenge for our back row because it's going to be very tough whatever players they put out."

And the referee? "I have no idea who he is," Jennings smiles, claiming ignorance of the brouhaha that followed the handling of Ireland's Six Nations defeat to France.

But then, there are no clouds in Leinster's world. Just blue sky thinking. But don't be fooled by all the child's play. Making things look so easy takes a hell of an effort.

Irish Independent

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