Monday 14 October 2019

Tony Ward: Provinces' drive for glory gives Schmidt a head start

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt

I guess you could say that Leinster limped into the Pro12 final... literally and metaphorically. Glasgow lived up to their pre-match billing and gave their hosts a thorough physical and technical examination.

The Scots have been the most consistent team over the course of this Pro12 season and, under coach Gregor Townsend, the most complete combination in the competition outside of these shores.

I visited Glasgow's new home, Scotstoun, on a number of occasions this season, and along with Exeter's Sandy Park and the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, it is a ground clearly building a rugby culture for the future.

And while former Scotland out-half Townsend was perceived as something of a loose cannon, mixing the sublime with the ridiculous in his playing days (nothing wrong with that, says he), the team he is assembling plays with a similar sense of adventure and swagger but underpinned at all times by an edge bordering on the ruthless.

Destined

Make no mistake, this is a team destined for European success, and sooner rather than later – pending the reconstruction of the tournament that even the Anglo-French powerbrokers pushing for change cannot afford to lose.

But back to another weekend of outstanding success for Irish rugby. It's a testament to how far the professional game has come in this country that we have two provinces contesting the Pro12 final, with one of them (Leinster) just two matches away from a domestic and Amlin Challenge double.

In addition, Ulster and Munster both reached the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup, with the southern province pushing competition favourites Clermont Auvergne close on French soil in the last four.

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Then there was Connacht returning three pool wins from six, including a memorable success over Biarritz, in just their second season in the competition.

Put all that together, and despite the top trophy leaving these shores (bound for France), it has been another substantial season for Irish rugby below Test level.

Unfortunately, the international team endured their poorest Six Nations showing since the Italians came on board at the turn of the millennium. For that, Declan Kidney has paid a heavy price – and if Joe Schmidt doesn't yet appreciate what he is letting himself in for, he soon will. For now, Schmidt and Leinster's focus is on going out with a bang.

A litany of injuries sustained on Saturday hasn't helped preparations for a massive fortnight.

The fact that Ulster will have a blank weekend to prepare before heading to the RDS for the final game of the season is a huge plus for the northerners.

Last year, Leinster had to dampen down celebrations following back-to-back Heineken Cup successes (beating Ulster in the final) before facing Shane Williams and the Ospreys fully rested, and it will be the same again should they account for Stade Francais in the shadow European tournament on Friday.

Fortunately, and I say this with no disrespect to the Parisian aristocrats, the finals come in the right order. The RDS will be hot on Friday but even hotter eight days on.

Glasgow Warriors were always set to present a more formidable challenge to Leinster than Llanelli Scarlets to Ulster. In the end there wasn't a lot in it at Ravenhill, with Ulster's third try ropy to say the least.

But job done, the finale to their season now awaits. They will relish heading to Dublin, particularly when factoring in what transpired at Twickenham a year ago.

Take out a disappointing Heineken Cup quarter-final performance against Mark McCall's Saracens and it has been a productive year for Mark Anscombe and Ulster.

Despite the tragic loss of Nevin Spence plus long-term injuries to Johann Muller, Tommy Bowe and particularly Stephen Ferris, it has been a successful season on the field. The Pro12 title would crown it.

Ravenhill, much like Scotstoun and Sandy Park, is well on the way to becoming a formidable, physically imposing fortress.

The new Ireland head coach is not going to wave a magic wand, but the game is in pretty good nick in all four provinces.

And that's not a bad starting point for the new main man.

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