Sport Rugby

Wednesday 23 October 2019

George Hook: Schmidt must land trophy double to make farewell campaign a success

Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt
Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt

Leinster have two games left that will define their season. A return of two trophies from the next two games and Joe Schmidt's final term in charge will be considered a success, despite his team's early exit in the Heineken Cup.

But they must win the next two matches against Stade Francais in the Amlin Challenge Cup final and Ulster in the Pro12 decider.

It has been a disjointed season thus far but there can be no excuses at the RDS tonight. Sergio Parisse aside, the Parisians are a very average team. They finished a lowly 10th in the Top 14 table. Biarritz, a team hammered by Leinster in the Amlin semi-final, took Stade apart in their last league game, scoring 52 points.

The French travel with a solid full-back in Jerome Porical – he kicked 20 points in the semi-final win over Perpignan, and in former France scrum-half Julien Dupuy they have a player with plenty of experience. However, not much else about this team should trouble Leinster.

The RDS fans will be familiar with Stan Wright and Paul Warwick, but the former Leinster prop and ex-Munster full-back are both on the bench tonight.

The dynamics for Schmidt's team are simple. If Leinster stop Parisse and keep their discipline and penalty count low, Stade have no chance of winning this game.

Leinster's strength in depth is epitomised by the centre pairing of Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden, who replace the injured Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. The substitute midfield still looks stronger than their opponents, and coupled with the threat of Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney, the home crowd should see some tries.

Andrew Conway has a chance to show his new employers at Munster that his defence is up to scratch. The retirement of Doug Howlett presents him with a real opportunity.

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It was sobering to read of O'Driscoll's decision to sign a one-year extension to his contract in the week that he is unfit to play. Ireland's greatest player will carry the best wishes of everybody that cares about him in middle age.

The medical profession have no research or precedent to guide them. Looking at Phil Orr, Donal Lenihan and others with artificial joints is no comparison for the hits sustained by the modern rugby professional.

The new contract edges O'Driscoll closer to another World Cup in 2015. Hopefully he can resist the temptation to go on playing.

There was good news for two of Ireland's bright young talents. Dave Kearney is on the bench tonight having recovered from the incident with Paul O'Connell, and Luke Marshall has signed a new contract with Ulster.

Schmidt has been speaking of the need to manage his squad to get the best out of them for the final two games of the season. But any talk of Leinster's front-line players being tired is difficult to accept. In eight months since September, Leinster have played a total of 31 competitive games in all competitions.

Of those 31 matches, Rob Kearney, admittedly with injury problems, and Sean O'Brien have played in just 10. In other words they've either been injured or rested for two out of every three Leinster games.

Meanwhile, Cian Healy, who has been largely injury-free for the season, has played 19 games for Leinster over the last eight months. But of those 19 games, only once has he come through a full 80 minutes, and in 12 of them he spent less than 60 minutes on the pitch.

Jonny Sexton has played 16 times for the province this season, which still only equates to two games a month.

Even if one factors in five Six Nations games and two autumn Tests against Argentina and South Africa, that is still very little rugby for Leinster's top players.

The evidence diminishes the validity of Schmidt's argument about tired players. Even allowing for injuries, some of the front-line players being protected by the IRFU player welfare system are alarmingly short on game time.

Rugby is a physical sport which requires the highest level of conditioning. That conditioning only comes through playing games on a regular basis.

There are two finals to be negotiated before the end of the season. If Schmidt has the type of ruthless winning mentality that we hear so much about, he must get his team over the line in both.

And only then will Leinster's disappointing Heineken Cup campaign be put to bed. There are two trophies up for grabs here. And, as Meatloaf is fond of saying, two out of three ain't bad.

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