Back to basics
Fitzgerald defends Schmidt’s Cheika-like start by insisting Leinster players must take blame
WHEN news filtered through to Thomond Park last Saturday night that Leinster, 2009's European champions, had been thwarted by Magners League virgins Treviso, guffaws and giggles suffused the Limerick air.
After the initial shock reverberated throughout European rugby at the humiliation of one of its leading club sides, it was all some could do to simply laugh, especially if one's adherence lies in the red corner of Irish rugby. However, it has been no laughing matter within Leinster rugby. Their supporters are rightly peeved at such a shocking early-season reverse, a second in three games under their new coach Joe Schmidt.
So too the players, deeply frustrated at what Ulster's Stephen Ferris has euphemistically called "the Irish resting thing", who are also not enamoured at the manner in which the wheels have come off so spectacularly this early in the season.
History will record that the previously all-conquering reign of Michael Cheika was similarly blighted in its early days but, with a complete overhaul of the backroom staff and a stuttering representation of its leading lights, there is little time for Leinster to wallow introspectively.
A trip to ghostly Murrayfield is not the place to exorcise demons but Leinster must do precisely that on Friday and, with a swingeing disciplinary punishment to Sean O'Brien threatening to overshadow their build-up, this week promises to be a pivotal one for the new coaching staff.
Luke Fitzgerald has returned from injury to suddenly become immersed in a mini-crisis of confidence for his club as they seek to extricate themselves from the nether regions of the fledgling Magners League table.
"Michael Cheika picked up an awful lot of flak in his first year, and look how he did," stressed Luke Fitzgerald yesterday as the IRFU launched their primary schools 'Play Rugby' participation initiative.
"I think guys need to be given time to impose their philosophy, how they want the team to play. And you have to give them time to do that. We're three games into the season, so guys aren't going to panic now.
"It's time for everyone to just relax, take a step back and say, 'listen lads, there's not a whole lot going wrong here, we've just got to up our accuracy in a few areas and things hopefully will go right for us'. It's that simple."
Fitzgerald is keen, however, to dismiss the IRFU's much-discussed World Cup player management scheme as a reason for Leinster's worrying wobbles.
"If you're asking about the player policy, that's a challenge for every team. I think every Irish team has that challenge this year and it's something that we have all have to deal with and get on with.
"We all want the national team to do well and the national management feel that's the best way to benefit the team and make the team play well for the World Cup next year, for the Six Nations and the November internationals.
"That's the situation we're in and we have to deal with it at this stage. All the teams are in the same boat so to use that excuse is just an easy way out really.
"A lot of the guys who are sitting out are the really big players who they want the really big performances from in the internationals. The guys want to play every week, that's the nature of the job as a professional rugby player, but at the same time, on the big stage they want to perform to the best of their ability and that's what the national management are saying to them."
It's clear there is already a concerted attempt within the squad to deflect from any onerous criticism of the incoming coach; Fitzgerald attests that it is the players who deserve to ship the blame for their shoddy start.
"He's looking for us to make good decisions out there. As players, no matter if you're experienced or inexperienced, in the wet conditions it's probably not a good idea to be throwing behind-the-back passes."
However, in the rush to re-acquaint Leinster's thrilling back-line with some of the scintillating -- if at times unrewarding -- rugby that was once their hallmark before Cheika's steel enabled his side to become European champions, the side must not abandon the basic principles of the game.
"It's a case of back to the drawing board and try to focus on our basics and get those right for this weekend. One of the things Joe has targeted is our pass accuracy and our timing.
"He thinks we can improve on that from last year from a back-line perspective. One of the areas we really targeted is our attack -- we feel we could be getting so much more out of our attack. There's an experience and maturity in the squad so that we should be able to play heads-up rugby and I think that will bring us on to a new level.
"The bad results have been down to the players. The platform we're working off is very basic, and it's the way you want to play rugby, kind of giving power to players to go out and play what you see. So it's a matter of us going out and performing at this stage."
Elsewhere, the Connacht squad for Saturday's clash with Ulster has been extended to 26 to allow a number of players time to recover from knocks sustained in training and against Glasgow Warriors last weekend. Eric Elwood's crew have been bolstered by the return to training of Johnny O'Connor, Brian Tuohy and Eoin Griffin.
O'Connor has been sidelined with a back injury and, though not considered for selection, his return to training marks a welcome relief, with captain John Muldoon and No 8 Ezra Taylor both out of action.
Gavin Duffy (back), Frank Murphy (foot), Fionn Carr (foot) and Jamie Hagan (back) all pulled out of training yesterday and their progress will be monitored over the next few days before the team is chosen.
Connacht coach Elwood says it will feel odd sending his team out to play against a side assembled by his friend and former sparring partner David Humphreys.
The two competed on the field for over a decade and a half in the Connacht and Ulster colours and also battled for the Irish No 10 shirt. Elwood has taken the reins in Connacht this season after being assistant to Michael Bradley for five years, while Humphreys is Ulster's director of rugby.
"It will be unusual to be meeting in this way after meeting on the field for so many years. But he has moved to new pastures and so have I," said Elwood.
"He is a proud Ulsterman and is anxious to get them back on the European map, turn Ravenhill into a fortress and progress in the Magners League. But I'm a proud Connacht man and my aims are no different."