Saturday 20 January 2018

We have to do better than this -- Schmidt

Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

WHATEVER happened to the great entertainers?

"It was probably a pretty crap game to watch," a dejected Scarlets coach Simon Easterby said after seeing his side effectively exit the Heineken Cup. No one was prepared to disagree.

When your tight-head prop is named Man of the Match, you know it hasn't been pretty.

Mike Ross deserved his gong after an excellent display, but it was the failure of his team-mates to capitalise on the platform he gave them that will concern Joe Schmidt, whose side lost out on territory and possession for the second week in succession.

Leinster left Llanelli on Saturday with a feeling that is growing all too familiar -- a cocktail of relief and concern that has dominated their season so far. After another mixed display and another poor game, they remain undefeated in Pool 5, but things will ramp up several notches in December when they take on Clermont twice in six days.

The French side have scored 95 points in their opening two games -- compared with Leinster's 29 -- and they picked up bonus points against the Scarlets and Exeter Chiefs that give them a two-point cushion over the Irish province going into their back-to-back clashes. It could be crucial.

Two years ago, the roles were reversed and Leinster could afford to claim a losing bonus point in France and were still level on points coming to Dublin. This year, should they lose at the Stade Marcel Michelin, as most teams do, they could be six or seven points behind going into the home game.

Asked if there was more to come from his side ahead of those meetings, Schmidt said: "I hope so because there has to be. You can't keep surviving skinny margins like that."

His captain, who toiled hard as part of a big tight-five effort, was happy to have muddled through the opening rounds having not played well.

"Keeping in control of your destiny is a big thing," Leo Cullen said. "We can't control what the other teams are doing at the minute. We just need to keep plugging away ourselves, and we have a few guys coming back from injury as well, which will be great."

One of those who has returned eventually was Gordon D'Arcy and he contributed massively to Saturday's win. Rob and Dave Kearney are not far away, while Rhys Ruddock returned in the British and Irish Cup on Saturday. The injury crisis is easing.

Wins are wins and Schmidt was happy to put the result over the performance.

"It's a massive relief especially because we know the value of the two teams we have managed to get an advantage on. The Scarlets were a bit unlucky here. The way they came back into the game, we would openly admit that," he said.

The home side gave another example of the riddle that is Welsh rugby in front of a muted crowd of just over 9,000. Here were men who marched on last year's World Cup and claimed a Grand Slam. Men who are nailed on to be part of the Lions squad next year.

Whatever it is about their club jersey, they lose that aura. Rhys Priestland had an awful afternoon, while George North was just about ordinary. Out-half Priestland missed three penalties and kicked a late touch-finding penalty dead, ruining his side's last chance to get a draw.

The problem for Leinster was that, having watched his Lions rival disintegrate, Jonny Sexton lost his own mojo and started making uncharacteristic mistakes. Both men will hope that Warren Gatland wasn't watching.


The European champions will feel they should never have been in a position to draw after a strong first-half showing led by their aggressive back-row of Jamie Heaslip, Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings. They led 14-0 early in the second half, but failed to strangle their hosts and let them back into it.

They put aside traffic problems which delayed their arrival to start strongly, with Sexton opening with a penalty almost from kick-off, before the fly-half spotted that North had gone wandering and sent a perfect cross-kick for Isa Nacewa to collect and twist out of the giant wing's grasp and touch down.

After Priestland missed a long-range penalty, a fantastic D'Arcy steal and Eoin Reddan's chip was followed by a woeful North pass that didn't go to hand. From the resultant scrum, Ross turned the screw and referee Greg Garner handed Sexton the opportunity to add to Leinster's lead.

Trailing 11-0 at the break, Priestland missed a chance to get the Scarlets off the mark before Sexton dropped a long-range goal. After 43 minutes, it looked like Leinster were about to break free. But it proved to be the opposite as D'Arcy infringed and Priestland steered his effort over.

Sexton missed an easy chance to restore the 11-point lead, before a loose kick straight into touch handed Scarlets field position and they took full advantage as, from the line-out, Gareth Maule stood Brian O'Driscoll up and scorched past the Ireland captain to score.

Suddenly, Parc y Scarlets awoke from its lunchtime stupor, but a huge scrum handed Sexton the chance to restore some daylight and Priestland missed another opportunity. Sexton made the lead 10, but then full-back Ian Madigan was harshly sin-binned for taking his opposite number Liam Williams out in the air.

Priestland nailed the kick, but then kicked the ball dead when he had the chance to give his side a close-in line-out. Leinster had escaped again as their experience -- and some strong scrummaging in the closing stages -- brought them through.

"It is a great luxury to have when you sniff that opportunity," Cullen said. "Mike (Ross) was in the zone today, he got a hard time after last week's performance, but he came back really strong this week.

"We sniffed that opportunity and just went after it. It's important to be clinical like that, to spot a weakness we need to go after and I'm just pleased to get the win. It wasn't pretty at times but we got the job done."

SCARLETS -- L Williams; G North, G Maule, S Williams, A Fenby (M Stoddart 68); R Priestland, T Knoyle (G Davies 53); P John, M Rees (K Owens 57), S Lee (D Manu 57); G Earle (T Vallejos Cinalli h-t), J Snyman (J Edwards 64); A Shingler, J Turnbull, R McCusker (capt).

LEINSTER -- I Madigan; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan (I Boss 71); C Healy (H van der Merwe 62), S Cronin (R Strauss 56), M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Browne (D Toner 56); K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip.

REF -- G Garner (England)

Irish Independent

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