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Schmidt's dynamic duo to ease Blues home


Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE


Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt Picture: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Back where Joe Schmidt grew up in New Zealand – now seemingly an exclusive breeding ground for all Irish provincial and national coaches – they approach thorny dilemmas with the simplest of solutions.

Hence, when the Leinster coach was faced this week with a conundrum at out-half, Schmidt barely batted an eyelid as he contemplated just what to do with two of the most talented playmakers in his squad.

Why prefer one player, Jonathan Sexton, ahead of another, Ian Madigan, when the opportunity is there to play both?

Thanks to a handily convenient and hitherto unpublicised calf problem for Gordon D'Arcy, Schmidt can dovetail both players in his side – Kiwis would call them first and second-first five-eighths. Simple, really.

It's not a new trick in these parts, of course; Ulster have deployed Paddy Wallace in such a role for some time and one of the unconvincing traits of Declan Kidney's time in charge of Ireland was the uncomfortable ploy of pushing Sexton to 12 to accommodate Ronan O'Gara as a playmaker.

In what could be one of the last significant selection decisions in his hugely successful time as an inventive Leinster coach – reminding us once more of Brian O'Driscoll's claims that he's learned more from him than any other coach in the past decade – neutral viewers today may also get a glimpse of an Ireland of the future.

Although Leinster's interests will primarily be focused on winning today's Amlin Challenge Cup contest against Biarritz as they continue to plot a five-week Dublin assault on twin titles, Ireland supporters will be anxious to see how the exciting duo dovetail.

Schmidt's main task with Ireland will be to develop an attacking game that has faltered badly in recent years – not even surviving the illusory impact made by Les Kiss since his post-World Cup switch, despite his role being trumpeted by some critics.

The deployment of Madigan outside Sexton is one gambit that could pay dividends; this afternoon may offer a sturdy enough test of its durability as a nascent partnership, particularly with Damien Traille's heft regularly steaming down the channel.

Sexton, a much better defender than his able deputy, may switch inside for defensive reasons, but there is every reason to believe that should the experiment prosper, Madigan's audacious claims to a Lions touring jersey may not be as fantastic as they seem.

Madigan has played here before for Leinster and it wasn't a wholly successful enterprise then; his confidence has been transformed though and there is every reason to feel he will thrive.

There is no folly in this call by Schmidt. Indeed, if Biarritz pitch up in Dublin prepared to deploy their style of knockout rugby – a stunning cure for insomnia – Leinster will require invention behind the scrum.

Sexton and Madigan, as twin playmakers, can shift the emphasis of attack, aided by the liveliness of service wrought at scrum-half by Isaac Boss, who more than comfortably allowed Leinster to run so freely in the quarter-final romp against Wasps.

Of course, all this is predicated upon Leinster neutralising the giant Biarritz pack; not a foregone conclusion, particularly now that Sean O'Brien is a confirmed absentee with another freakish late injury.

Leinster, however, are a far superior side to the Gloucester one that rolled over in Biarritz's quarter-final, even allowing for the absences of O'Brien and D'Arcy denying them obvious ball-carrying threats.


They will be wary of an ambush, though, and Schmidt once more regaled listeners this week with the tale of how Clermont's last ever home defeat in the Stade Marcel-Michelin came at the hands of the dastardly Basques.

And yet like much of the talk about the club still ruled in dictatorial fashion by Serge Blanco, references to Biarritz are shadowed by historical reverence; the club that exists today is a mess, mired in Top 14 mediocrity and now a financial lightweight.

Their status precedes them. So, too, the reputations of Traille, Dimitri Yachvili and Imanol Harinordoquy, the man who destroyed Ireland as far back as the 2003 World Cup.

Should the three wise men be on their game, they will drag the rest of the side with them; if they phone in performances, the French side will fold like a cheap tent, allowing Leinster to run riot.

The latter is the less likely scenario – simply because this is the club's final shot at redemption in another poor season and also their last chance to maintain an unbroken sequence of 14 successive seasons in the Heineken Cup.

They have rarely embroidered the competition in recent seasons – more besmirched it, in fact – so few would mourn their absence from next season's edition.

Leinster will be there, of course, and this temporary exile into the secondary European competition has not diminished their appetite for the challenge; if anything, they have ramped up their desire to win this particular prize.

Doing so in front of their home fans is a major motivational tool, almost a decade to the day since beating today's opponents in a Heineken Cup quarter-final when another domestic route to a Dublin final beckoned.

Mental frailties eventually cost them that year, not to mention a lack of maturity and exposure to top-level competition; both sides are as mirror images 10 years on and Leinster are now expected to win.

"We're certainly not going to be complacent," says captain Leo Cullen, who was part of that Leinster team a decade ago before becoming an exile at Leicester temporarily and then returning to establish the province's reputation as a European heavyweight.

"If they can get their pack moving and Dimitri Yachvili kicking their goals, they can become a pretty formidable obstacle to stop. So, it is up to us to impose our game on them and not give them any chance to set their stall out.

"We're not focused on anything else other than this weekend's matches. We're not thinking about winning the double or playing all our matches in Dublin. This is the only Dublin match we're concerned with and it's one we want to win."

Without any hint of a dilemma, you can bank on them to do just that.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent