Thursday 23 November 2017

Schmidt silences clueless critics

TWO months ago, Joe Schmidt was being given his ticket home to New Zealand by several commentators after a winless start to his Leinster career.

Calls for his head were premature -- which I wrote at the time -- and now he is really proving his mettle as an outstanding appointment by Leinster to the position of head coach.

In the run-up to last night's game there were a few eyebrows raised at some of his selections, but as has happened in the past they all paid off.

His decision to pick Cian Healy and Eoin Reddan, for example, took just 10 minutes to justify. They were there to move the French around the park and to tax their physical abilities against Leinster's capacity to react. What Schmidt got was a result: Clermont were found seriously lacking in this regard.

The best possible way to reach a century of games in the Heineken Cup is to give 45,000 home fans one of the most complete performances Leinster have ever produced in the competition. A bonus point and a clean sheet eluded them but other than that it was as near as possible to the perfect performance.

They have now put together a run of very impressive displays. I felt that last week's bonus point in the away leg was crucial and the fact that Leinster didn't pull one out of the bag yesterday underlines the importance of last week's performance. They then capitalised on last week, bringing with them all the intensity that they had shown in France.

Leinster started with a hectic pace and continued at that level for certainly 65 to 70 minutes. They demonstrated the grit and resilience that no rugby team can be with out. They are finally being recognised as a team who possess this vital quality.

This Leinster team is now establishing a serious reputation; combine that with their attitude of intense commitment and then layer those qualities on top of what is a highly skilled and spirited squad, and they have all the appearances of a side capable of competing at the highest level for the foreseeable future.

The old qualities of Leinster are still there -- the flair of O'Driscoll and D'Arcy, and the leadership of Heaslip.

But yesterday their core was supplemented by Isa Nacewa at fullback, Sean O'Brien on the flank, who gives a new dimension to the side's ball-carrying arm and line-breaking capacity of the team. Along with those two, Leinster have the added benefit of Richardt Strauss at hooker, who with every passing game looks an inspired signing.

I must particularly mention Cian Healy. Not only did he get a deserved two tries but he had an outstanding game with an extremely high workrate.

The road to the quarter-finals is still a very very tricky one but if they can continue the intensity of focus so evident last night, then they should progress in the competition.

Sunday Independent

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