Saturday 24 February 2018

Schmidt finding it difficult to play down strong hand

Leinster have a few injuries but are not short of options, writes Brendan Fanning

Back in the day, captains of teams who were hacking up by half-time would address the troops and urge them to treat the second half as if it were 0-0. A difficult mental exercise that, but you get the idea.

And all this week Joe Schmidt will be giving his players a variation on the theme. A win in the RDS on Saturday will almost certainly put Leinster in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for the eighth time. By close of business that day they will know if they have anything left to climb in Paris the next week -- and if they do it won't be mountainous.

So it's a matter of sorting out Saracens who prop up the pool and have nothing to play for, except pride. And in the case of Brendan Venter that's where they start every game. Losing away to Sale last weekend --who had lost their previous five games -- was another blot on a copybook that started to look a bit scruffy after Leinster went to Wembley and shut them down.

It was after that game that Venter's frustration got the better of him, not the first time, and you could see why: phase after phase of Saracens' ball and nothing to show for it against a defence that has averaged less than a try per game over their last eight matches. You'd wonder if Saracens can add something else to the equation.

"Yeah, I think they can play a closer game. I think they can play a kicking game," Schmidt says. "The absence of (Derick) Hougaard may limit their kicking game because he's such a good kicker. While we defended very well against them, they did score a try. They've got such quality that certainly if we turned up and played as we did tonight (Friday), they could really do some damage to us. With players who are great on their feet like (Schalk) Brits, you just can't give them the space we afforded Ospreys, and give them back the ball as many times as we did tonight.

"They've been quite overt in their comments regarding the Heineken Cup, that they're going to keep chasing. We can not afford to think that they're going to come with anything other than all guns blazing."

Not only has Schmidt a group who have only lost two of their last 13 games, but most of them will be fit. That should include Jonny Sexton who went off late against Ospreys with a tight calf, but the sight of Jamie Heaslip having more trouble with the ankle injury which has restricted his participation -- and form -- over the last month, is more concerning.

The successful return of Luke Fitzgerald, who coincidentally tore his medial ligament in the first leg with Saracens in October, eases the pain of having been without Rob Kearney who may not be fit again until the last two rounds of the Six Nations, in March.

The interesting call will be in the back row, including the bench, where Schmidt has used eight players over the last three games with no loss of effect. They are falling down with options here, and Sean O'Brien's contributions at number eight take much of the heat out of the Heaslip situation.

In the back three, the form of Fergus McFadden is excellent, and Shane Horgan too is in good nick. Schmidt's regard for Nacewa is evident however. "He's done a great job in the absence of both Luke and Rob since the autumn internationals, so I guess it's about keeping a balance, rather than trying to change too much," he says. If he shifts Fitzgerald into McFadden's slot, then the coach won't be doing so on form. It's the big games, the really big Heineken Cup games, where we'll probably see his view on who his best XV are but it's certainly going to be a very tough choice," says Fitzgerald. "And looking at it from an outsider's perspective like I have the last few weeks it has been worrying enough. I had to kind of push up the recovery a bit so I could try and get in this week and put my name in the hat for next week. So hopefully I have done enough to get in but you never know because so many of the guys are playing well."

Rather than selection the most pressing issue for Schmidt is clearing the contract issues from the air. Not having Sexton and Heaslip nailed down is an irritation for him when he's trying to sign off on qualification in Europe.

"It's always an unwanted distraction for the management when, y'know, we've got some good players and we'd certainly like them to stay. We're kind of building a group that's generally enthusiastic about the work. We were a little bit flat tonight but -- I don't think unduly once they take the field. They're pretty professional. They certainly know how to switch on and get into purely rugby mode when the time demands. I'm pretty confident we'll have some bits and pieces of good news in the next week or two, and some bits and pieces of news I'm not sure about, but that I hope are good news. I can't be any more exact than that because that's all I know."

At least by Saturday he should be clear on one thing: Leinster having an extended interest in the Heineken Cup.

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