Thursday 22 February 2018

Schmidt counts cost of triumph in combat

Leinster 30 Munster 21

David Kelly

David Kelly

Joe Schmidt and Rob Penney pitched up at the big house questing a spark before Heineken Cup combat.

What we learned was that Munster's long-term investment will require more patience than some may be willing to endure, while Leinster paid a high tariff for their return to form.

Although Schmidt's side rebounded stirringly after humiliation in Connacht, any contentment for the coach is smothered by the fumes of the liniments and ointments emanating from a congested infirmary.

Brian O'Driscoll (ankle), Isa Nacewa (haematoma), Andrew Conway (neck) and Kevin McLaughlin (elbow) join the growing list of health checks; worryingly, theirs now emulates Munster's injury woes of last term.

"We're going to have to see," moaned Schmidt, whose side were easier winners than the scoreline suggested but who now face an Exeter side buzzing from pounding the English champions Harlequins 42-28 on Saturday.

"That's the frustration for me, it's all waiting and seeing at the moment. It's great to get in on a Monday and say, 'right lads, here are the plays, I want these guys to run in these positions', then name a team and run them on Thursday.

"When you're not sure who you have, the lack of clarity and continuity compromises the preparation."

O'Driscoll and Nacewa are the more serious doubts as it is uncertain whether either man will be able to train properly until late this week; if they can walk, they will play.

Leinster are not so cock-a-hoop that they can afford to snub risk-taking with their best men, especially as their qualification pool is looking fiendishly more difficult with every passing day.

"The biggest concern for us coming in here was injury," Schmidt added. "That has been exacerbated by what's happened."

Penney's problems are of a subtler hue, but no less urgent for that.

Trumped for a third successive road trip; Munster's next game in the Stade de France, against Racing Metro, would seem to define their season, had Penney afterwards not twice denied it.

His selection may do so.

Particularly as he prepares to stamp his impressive authority on a side who have belatedly adapted their style of play which, although lacking punch, at least displays intent.

Ronan O'Gara's sub-par performance, prompting Ian Keatley's earlier than anticipated cameo, forced Penney to radically re-shuffle and, for his evolution to continue apace, it appears he may have to perform an unthinkable act and drop the veteran for Europe.

Penney's strong admission that his side can still cut it both ways leaves the door ajar for O'Gara but, then again, the out-half barely operated like his erstwhile self, so over-eager was his effort in adapting to the new coach's declaration of attacking intent.

A straw poll of Munster fans in the hostelries of Dublin 4 and beyond delivered its own damning verdict on the out-half's survival chances.

Leinster were similarly pilloried by the common man after subsiding so meekly in Connacht but on Saturday, bolstered by buoyant half-backs who comprehensively outplayed their opposing pair, a stronger scrum and dominant back-row, the European champions shone in so many different ways.

"The quality of the rugby in the first 55 minutes was very good," said Schmidt, who took time to praise the Munster salvos that bookended a dominant middle 40 minutes for the home side.

"Munster scored a superb try. It was a great example of the width they're trying to play. They're going to be dangerous when they get more comfortable and proficient at it.

"I'd like to think we can be a bit more proficient defensively. You'd like to think we could mark up there and shut them down. But we got through some good defensive work, even with guys out of position towards the end of the game.

"Our platform was nice and solid. Our scrum was really strong in the first half. I can't comment on first-half line-outs because we only got one.

"But we got a few in the second and I thought we developed a couple of good situations to attack from, but maybe we didn't respect the ball enough. There were a couple of times where we forced things on the ground and turned over.

"It was a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of night. Hopefully, when we get through the medical centre, we can put out a good side for Exeter because with them putting 40 points on Harlequins, you don't do that without being a quality side. We're very well aware that's what they are. It wasn't a shock. They're at home.

"If you judge them on last season's results and the style of play they've developed, I don't think it's a massive surprise. They can put points on a team very quickly.

"They demonstrated that against Sale and even Northampton, where they led at half-time but went down by three at Franklin's Gardens. So for us it's all about injuries and recovery."

Penney's men had contributed thrillingly to an open game, particularly the breathless first quarter.

Ultimately, though, his team are not able to effectively execute their current -- and intended future -- game plan. Not yet, anyhow. O'Gara was not alone in trying too hard. "We approached the game really well this week," said Penney, who confirmed that discipline also remains a recurring issue.

"I'm rapt with their commitment and preparation. After being seven points down, we ripped into the game pretty early on. Our endeavour and commitment was fantastic.

"Our accuracy was average. We made too many errors, both offensively and defensively. At the end of the day, you can't make that many errors against a good side like Leinster, or any side really, but Leinster are going to make you pay for those errors. And we made too many errors to get out of that game with a result."

Penney refused to countenance that next week's visit to Paris -- where Racing Metro slumped to defeat at Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir to Montpellier on Saturday -- will define his season or his selection.

"There'll be discussions about a number of people," he said when asked directly about the out-half conundrum.

"We're still working through the best mix for the team at the moment. I wouldn't be using the words 'shepherd's crook' about Ronan.

"It's more about the rest period that Ronan has obviously had, he's had limited time with the group, limited preparation time, whereas Ian has been here the whole time.

"Those discussions will be had but they'll be had on a number of levels and over a number of positions. We've got the ability to play any kind of style. The boys have to run the ship out on the field as they see it.

width

"When we used a little more width and got the ball into space, we looked dangerous at times. But again, at times our ability to build pressure though consistent time with the ball was a deficiency of ours.

"To say next week defines our season, or the next two weeks defines our season, is a bit harsh and short-sighted because we have lads in there that are new to this.

"And every opportunity for them to play is a growing opportunity. And I for one am really positive about the direction in which they're headed."

And so it seemed when the last out turned off the lights on Saturday night, both teams were left wanting more. Just the kind of yearning required ahead of a fortnight of Heineken Cup combat.

Leinster -- I Madigan; A Conway (J Cooney 65), B O'Driscoll (N Reid 64), F McFadden, I Nacewa (F Carr 55); J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss (S Cronin 57), M Ross (J Hagan 65), D Browne (T Denton 73), D Toner, K McLaughlin (J Murphy 12), S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).

Munster -- D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo (J Downey 65); R O'Gara (I Keatley 60),C Murray; D Kilcoyne (W du Preez 57), M Sherry (D Varley 51 yc 54-64), BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan (B Holland 49), D Ryan, Dave O'Callaghan (P Butler 70), P O'Mahony, S Dougall.

Ref -- L Hodges (Wales).

Irish Independent

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