Thursday 14 December 2017

Fitzgerald central to Leinster plans

Schmidt puts faith in young star to sting Saracens

Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter had to kill one of South Africa's most venomous snakes when he was forced to travel home for a family funeral last week.

This evening at Wembley, in front of an expected attendance of some 45,000, his Leinster counterpart Joe Schmidt will be hoping to unleash a weapon that proves just as lethal.

Luke Fitzgerald will slot in at outside-centre, a stunning rebuff to the perennially overlooked Fergus McFadden, but a switch which will have every Irish rugby supporter on the edge of their seats. While the player sees himself as a natural full-back, there are those who consider that he may be the future at outside-centre -- or, indeed, the present, given Brian O'Driscoll's well-chronicled injury travails.

Despite Leinster's delicate tango with supporters' heartstrings all week, O'Driscoll is predictably absent, hence the opportunity to slot Fitzgerald in at outside-centre, a position most in Irish rugby had pencilled in Keith Earls for beyond next year's World Cup.

Shane Horgan's bright late cameo last week clearly eclipsed that of try scorer McFadden, encouraging Schmidt to plump for Fitzgerald at centre and, with Eoin Reddan pointedly continuing at scrum-half, the emphasis for Leinster will be on securing quick ball and moving outside as swiftly as possible.

The promising news for neutrals is that Saracens are stoutly intent upon doing the same, disinclined to limit their ambition, despite being unlucky to return from Clermont last week without even a bonus point.

Leinster's aim by 7.30pm will be to have retained their lead at the head of affairs; by picking a team that is predicated upon winning, this could be a red letter day in this pool, particularly as Clermont's team selection for the trip to Paris has raised a few eyebrows.


Venter has shuffled his Saracens' pack for the game, with Ernst Joubert back at No 8, replacing Kelly Brown, who drops to the bench. Mouritz Botha comes into the second-row to partner captain Steve Borthwick, while Hayden Smith joins the replacements.

At this week's press gathering, Venter related the remarkable story whereby the deadly black mamba snake entered his parents' domicile in Kruger National Park.

He simply clambered upon a table and shot the serpent with his shotgun.

In Thursday's training session, the qualified doctor, who still retains a Cape Town practice, had to stitch up the unfortunate Jacques Burger, danced upon by recidivist Jamie Cudmore last weekend.

But it is Leinster's back-line, not deadly snakes or profusely bleeding forwards, which will worry him most when he pulls back the curtains this morning.

"I had a text saying that we had gone 15-10 down in Clermont, but of greater concern was a deadly and very angry snake," recounted Venter. "It was two and a half metres long and when we first saw it, everyone jumped on to chairs because we were so scared; the snake was rearing up and I volunteered to shoot it.

"I have watched the video of the game at Clermont and I was very happy with the way we played. We enjoyed a lot of possession and had several chances to score -- we just did not take them.

"If we are to beat a top side like Leinster, we are going to have to finish what we start and that is something we have highlighted during the week."

The men behind the Saracens club are worth about £1bn between them, so success in Europe's greatest competition, not to mention their stated ambition to move base closer to London's heartland, are vital.

Transformed from the stolid, turgid outfit who poisoned the Premiership with their myopic vision of how the game should be played just a year ago, the transformation wrought by Venter, in conjunction with the law adjustments weighted to benefit attacking teams, has been nothing short of remarkable.

"He's done a pretty remarkable job in 18 months, bringing them from where they were to where they are now," agreed Leinster's captain Leo Cullen, who returns from injury to take a place on the bench.

"Any team coached by him is going to be a threat. His enthusiasm is contagious and they have a real work ethic around the field."


Venter knows his side must attack. "We will be taking the game to them again, as we did in France," he promised. "The new laws give an advantage to teams with the ball in hand and we need referees to do that. Last week the ref started well, but there were one or two issues. The defeat has not knocked our confidence at all and we will not be altering our approach."

Yet they retain the same doughty pack and, although ambitious, they don't necessarily toss about the pill for the sake of it. Leinster, disregarding their lamentable September, will harbour a similar approach.

Jonny Sexton will perhaps retain a broader vision than Derek Hougaard, presuming his pack can secure a foothold, and the goal-kicking battle between the pair could be crucial.

Sexton this week pointedly contradicted his coach's assertion that injury prevented a swifter resumption of his goal-kicking duties; now that he has successfully completed a week's practice, the out-half's effortless return to top form should continue apace.

Leinster have clearly been impressed with the manner in which Saracens have developed their game within such a short space of time; albeit the Irish province understand too the nature of adapting to the relaxed rules, which now offer a tad more licence to ball-carriers.

"Saracens are a fine side," observed skills coach Richie Murphy. "They're physical, but they can play different games. Last week, they played quite wide with threat from the back three.

"They have physical centres as well, who like to take the ball into the contact area. They're looking to create quick ruck ball all the time and if we give them that opportunity, they will be very hard to stop."

Leinster are seeking similar ball, so, as much as scintillating open play is anticipated, the skirmish to secure possession will be equally enthralling.

Leinster's improving defence also encourages those with an eye on an upset.

The bookies' narrow spread reflects the tenor of the day -- a kick of the ball may separate the winners. Saracens' need is greater but Leinster's attacking intent, even minus their talisman, can secure a critical point.

Verdict: Saracens by a nail

Saracens -- A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell, B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard, R Wigglesworth; D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, J Burger, A Saull, E Joubert.

Reps: J George, M Parr, R Skuse, H Smith, K Brown, N de Kock, K Ratuvou, N Cato.

Leinster -- R Kearney; S Horgan, L Fitzgerald, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, N Hines, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt].

Reps: J Harris-Wright, H Van Der Merwe, S Shawe, L Cullen, D Ryan, I Boss, F McFadden, E O'Malley.

Ref -- C Berdos (France)

Saracens v Leinster,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 4.45.

Highlights, RTE 2, 9.30.

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