Tuesday 24 April 2018

Timing everything in Leinster's daring recovery mission

Joe Schmidt's holy trinity of O'Driscoll, Kearney and Fitzgerald offer powerful reason for fans to keep faith

It will be interesting now to see who the coach chooses as Jonathan Sexton's partner on Saturday
It will be interesting now to see who the coach chooses as Jonathan Sexton's partner on Saturday
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Leinster's last seven days have been all about timing. A week ago they needed to get past the fact that they had a weakened team out against Connacht and take at least four points from the contest before their Pro12 position became critical. They sorted that impressively.

Then at the weekend they reintroduced three of their biggest names right on cue, with the Heineken pool run-in starting on Saturday in the RDS against Scarlets, and again needed at least a win to stay in touch in the league. So far so good.

By a distance Joe Schmidt's biggest concern in Edinburgh on Friday night was that his returning trio of Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald would come through the exercise in one piece. Next was that at least two of them – O'Driscoll and Kearney – would look like they were ready for the immediate step-up to Heineken Cup. And then there was the issue of the match points.

By half-time they had the last bit done first. It was one of those periods where they seem intent on running their opponents off their feet. It's possible that Jonny Sexton kicked for position at some point in that first 40 minutes, but if so it's already faded from the memory. He shifted everything, passed up two kickable penalty shots, and generally looked like he was in a hurry to break Edinburgh's spirit. Or else, get Leinster up to the speed required to chase 10 points in their remaining two Heineken Cup pool games.

"It was more about getting Rob and Luke and Brian involved as much as possible, as well as getting the points," Schmidt said afterwards. "So it was good to seem them come through okay and get a game under their belts ahead of next week. As well as that, it was about getting the international boys back on track really. We're always horribly out of sync over Christmas and this was the one game where we had an opportunity to get good shape back into the side.

"It's the same every year, but it had more of an edge I suppose now because we were hanging on in the league going into last weekend."

Nine points from a possible 10 over the last eight days goes a long way towards reattaching them to the lead group. And Scarlets' hammering in Ravenhill did Leinster no harm either, not least with the Welsh coming to Dublin on Saturday. Normally in these situations coaches like to talk about chasing four points rather than five, but Leinster's situation is unique for Schmidt. Since coming to the RDS in 2010, he hasn't experienced the double whammy of being threatened with eviction from the play-off spots in both competitions.

The seriousness of it all appeared to be showing on the face of his playmaker too. On Friday night, Sexton looked grumpier than usual – most likely because his error count was well above his average – but when he's like that it's usually a good thing. The outhalf is now one of the main drivers of the Ireland squad, having already got behind the wheel for Leinster in 2011. About the only time you want to see him satisfied is in the final quarter, when the job is done. And despite having the bonus point sorted through a fine Ian Madigan try – his fifth of the season – when Jamie Heaslip was in the bin, the director didn't look too happy with the performance.

It will be interesting now to see who the coach chooses as Sexton's partner on Saturday. Eoin Reddan has got three of the four starts in the campaign so far, with Isaac Boss used from the off in the away tie with Clermont, where he was very good. Oddly he didn't get off the bench in the opening round, against Exeter, when Leinster were having great difficulty putting the debutants away.

Last weekend Boss was man of the match against Connacht. Reddan is recognised for the speed he can put on the game, making good ball better, but it's wrong to say Boss's delivery can't give enough space to those outside him. And his extra physicality around the breakdown is a real bonus.

Getting five points against Scarlets will be as much about sending them backwards as shifting the ball sideways, and Boss needs to start. It is already a bonus that the physio's bench is three players lighter, so it's now about making the most of it.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport