Return of big hitters may be too late – Schmidt

Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

David Kelly

With both these sides lurching uncertainly towards 2013 on the back of a hat-trick of losses, it was clear that something had to give at an arctic RDS.

Pity it was the rugby.

Ultimately, a predominantly passable impression of a Leinster side were invited to seize this game by the scruff of the neck after hapless Connacht quite stubbornly refused to do so after owning the first half-hour.

Now Leinster will hope that, from such a seemingly unlikely platform, their stuttering season will belatedly explode into life, with an away fixture against Edinburgh on Friday promising to usher a clutch of significant personalities back into the fray.

As he had hinted last week, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt is hoping that all of his wounded stars, beginning with Brian O'Driscoll and Rob Kearney, then continuing with Luke Fitzgerald, Dave Kearney and Eoin O'Malley, will return at Murrayfield.

It may be too soon for Isa Nacewa's damaged arm to test its hardiness, but the coach revealed that he would not be worried about sticking him into the team regardless for the first of two pivotal Heineken Cup clashes, beginning a week later at home to Scarlets.


Schmidt's only lament, shared by many of the 15,500 frozen supporters, is that the return of his heavy-hitters, whose absence has so contributed to the crumbling defence of their European crown, may arrive a tad too late.

"The problem I have is that, if I get them back for Edinburgh, there's not an awful lot of time to knit ourselves back together when we have to chase those big games against Scarlets and Exeter in the following two weeks," bemoaned the coach.

"It would be nice to get a run-in of two or three games with those guys available and challenging for spots. It's not a perfect world, unfortunately.

"That was why tonight was such a boost for us. It showed us that when the young guys get out there, they fire and they showed mettle out there.

"It's always a reminder to the senior guys that they want to chase the jersey that they've got.

"That's one of the things over the last two years that has been a strength of the side. Sadly, that hasn't been the case this season. Whoever has been fit has played really. So it's good to start to develop some competition for places again."

Nacewa, whose badly bruised arm is in a cast, remains in severe discomfort and Schmidt will probably deem it prudent to rest him for another week, particularly as the damage is impinging on the plate inserted into the Fijian's previously broken arm.

However, O'Driscoll and Kearney, although yet to meet the full force of contact, are likely to feature as the coach intimated that it was a discomfort in running, rather than meeting physicality, which was their only restraint.

The eventual return of Fitzgerald – seemingly a weekly prospect since September – along with Dave Kearney and O'Malley will freshen the options for a side who know that even winning their final two Heineken Cup games may not keep them alive for a tilt at a title hat-trick on home turf.

Kevin McLaughlin, too, is likely to resume contact training today after damaging a shoulder in the warm-up before the Ulster defeat, while Leinster will await assessment on the luckless Andrew Conway, carted off with a dead leg in the second half of Saturday night's game.

For all the good news about returning bodies, reviving a season that had veered off the rails was just as important as Leinster easily avenged their Galway humiliation against a Connacht side that threw many shapes but far too few punches.

"It wasn't mentioned at all," said Schmidt of what, amidst the current expectations of Leinster supporters, represented a crisis after the three successive losses to quality Clermont and Ulster sides.

"We tried to focus on delivering the kind of performance that we needed to."

That they did, aided by a Connacht side whose performance deteriorated exponentially from the opening whistle. Indeed, the longer the westerners went without scoring in a dominant, if error-strewn opening half-hour, the more you reckoned Leinster would smash and grab a decisive score before half-time.

That they did, in their first extended dwelling in the scoring zone, the lively Ian Madigan pouncing against a sleepy defence from a quick penalty tap and go. His penalty extended the lead to 10-0 in the second half before Jack McGrath rumbled over to gloss the scoreline late on.

Connacht huffed and puffed but it remains a fact that their status has fallen since this time last season.

It was poignant that their coach Eric Elwood conducted his post-match media gig with that paean to feisty underachievement, the fine documentary 'The West's Awake' playing in the background.

Dan Parks, a big-time player brought in for big-time money to make big-time decisions, bizarrely neglected a chance to kick for 10-3 when his side could have asked questions of their youthful opposition.

Instead, Connacht fumbled a gilt-edged chance from a five-metre lineout, a stunning indictment of their ineptitude despite boasting the finest player on the park, scrum-half Kieran Marmion.

LEINSTER – A Conway (N Reid 42); F McFadden, B Macken (A Byrne 74), A Goodman, F Carr, I Madigan, I Boss (capt) (J Cooney 77); H van der Merwe (J McGrath 58), A Dundon (S Cronin 58), M Bent (M Ross 54), B Marshall, D Toner, R Ruddock, D Ryan (L Auva'a 71), J Murphy.

CONNACHT – R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin (T O'Halloran 58), D McSharry, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion (P O'Donohoe 71); D Buckley (B Wilkinson 60), J Harris-Wright (E Reynecke 60), N White (capt) (R Loughney 54), M Swift (M Kearney 64), G Naoupu, A Browne, J O'Connor (E Grace 60), E McKeon.

Ref – J Lacey (IRFU).