Big questions for Schmidt with Red Army on horizon
WITH just three matches gone, Leinster face a massive examination of their Magners League credentials in Edinburgh next weekend following a nightmare performance in Treviso on Saturday night.
Last season's runners-up went to Italy as warm favourites, but were systematically dismantled by the league newcomers, leaving new coach Joe Schmidt with just one victory from his five outings at the helm.
While a rudderless Leinster struggled to adapt to the heavy rain, the home side showed them the way through a simple game plan based around the dominance of their forward pack and superior control at half-back.
Ireland's player-management scheme meant Leinster started without Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip, while long-term injury has robbed them of Leo Cullen, Stan Wright and Kevin McLaughlin. Out-half Jonathan Sexton was rested ahead of the Edinburgh trip after injuring his quad muscle the previous weekend and Ian Madigan, the youngster who had done so well filling in for Sexton in the victory over the Cardiff Blues, struggled to impose himself.
The line-out was a shambles with both hookers, John Fogarty and Richardt Strauss, struggling to find jumpers in the difficult conditions, while their opponents were far more solid out of touch and notably more aggressive in the collisions.
Rob Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy looked rusty in their first outings and Leinster's overall defensive effort left much to be desired. In Sexton's absence, their place-kicking was also well below par, with Isa Nacewa and Fergus McFadden both missing vital kicks. Although Schmidt's men pushed hard for a score with the home side leading 22-13 in the closing stages, errors continued to let them down, allowing Treviso to break away for the final try through man of the match Brendan Williams.
It was Treviso's second home victory, having toppled the Scarlets in their debut outing and it was no more than their physical and focused efforts deserved -- although it had much to do with the paucity of the visitors' performance.
"In those conditions you really need to have a platform and I don't think we ever gave ourselves a platform," said Schmidt.
"Treviso are a very combative team and they put a lot of pressure on our line-out. They defended very strongly and they got up over the advantage line a lot of times and made it difficult for us to play in difficult conditions where you can't secure your ball off a solid platform. Some of our decision-making also wasn't as good as it could have been."
Leinster started brilliantly with good work by Eoin O'Malley allowing Nacewa to cross for a try after two minutes, which he converted himself. But Treviso found their feet and led 12-10 at half-time through two penalties by scrum-half Tobie Botes and two drop-goals from out-half Chris Burton to one penalty by Nacewa. Good work from O'Brien saw Nacewa push Leinster back in front with a penalty on the resumption, but that was their final score as Treviso piled on 17 points through the boot of Botes, Luke McLean's try and Williams' coup de grace.
One plus point for Leinster was their scrum, where Cian Healy and Mike Ross coped well with a powerful Treviso front row, but negatives outweighed the positives and the trip to Edinburgh assumes huge significance, with table-topping Munster in Dublin a week later.
It is early days for Schmidt, still adjusting to a new squad and the vagaries of the international management system, and the New Zealander should have O'Driscoll, Heaslip and Sexton for next weekend to bring leadership and control.
However, it will be Sexton's first outing of the season and comes against an Edinburgh side determined to get their season off the ground after three losses. It adds up to a huge task for Leinster as they seek to put this calamity behind them before Munster come calling.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, E O'Malley, G D'Arcy (F McFadden 56), L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan (I Boss 68); C Healy (H van der Merwe 56), J Fogarty (R Strauss 34-40, 47), M Ross (S Shawe 64); N Hines (M Galarza 73), E O'Donoghue; R Ruddock (S Keogh 76), S Jennings (capt), S O'Brien.
TREVISO -- B Williams; J Maddock (E Galon 73), T Benvenuti, A Sgarbi, L McLean (D Vidal 74); K Burton, T Botes; I Fernandez (F Sbaraglini 50), L Ghiraldini, L Cittadini (P Di Santo 60); V Bernabo (E Pavanello 50), C van Zyl; R Barbieri, A Zanni, M Vosawai (P Derbyshire 73).
REF -- P Allan (Scotland).