Sport Rugby

Thursday 14 December 2017

True Blue Schmidt can lead Leinster to historic double

Leinster captain Leo Cullen
Leinster captain Leo Cullen
David Kelly

David Kelly

Brian O'Driscoll wants Leinster to become a sporting dynasty -- and yesterday their leader Joe Schmidt committed himself to remaining part of that future.

"I am absolutely committed to being back," said Schmidt.

The unfailingly polite Schmidt's inability to block phone calls this week has accelerated rumours in his homeland of a romantic coaching return to New Zealand, where he will holiday this summer, after he confirmed to local media that he would like to go home at some stage in the future.

That's no big surprise; most expatriate southern hemisphere coaches return home sooner rather than later.

It will now be incumbent upon Leinster's canny chief executive Mick Dawson to ensure it is, indeed, much later, by immediately securing Schmidt's services beyond next summer's expiration of his current contract.

And the IRFU might not do themselves any harm by suggesting that a contract rider be inserted allowing him to hop aboard the international side at some stage, too.

For now, though, after fielding media calls from New Zealand all week about his future, Schmidt is firmly focused on dismissing such distractions as Leinster seek to secure a unique league and cup double.

"Someone got my phone number," he smiled ruefully as he unveiled Leinster's significantly altered team selection -- minus injured duo Sean O'Brien and Cian Healy -- for tomorrow's RDS final against Ospreys.

"I guess I've got too many family and friends back there!

"So, I have spoken to the media there a little bit, just because sometimes the number doesn't show up and, knowing a lot of people from New Zealand, I don't have all their numbers on my phone.

"I didn't realise it was going to be media when I picked up the phone. It's not something I'd like to be distracted by or the players to be distracted by.

"I'm excited about next year, or at least I will be after a four-week break that I'm more excited about at the moment.

"I'm most particularly focused on the next two days, though."

Despite the fact that official contract negotiations have not yet been planned between the respective parties, Schmidt's infectious enthusiasm and desire for a remarkable hat-trick of European titles suggests that the talks will be brief.

"I am absolutely committed to being back and I am really looking forward to it," he said.

"I think there will be a whole set of new challenges and a whole set of new expectations, maybe more than ever, and that, in itself, is an exciting challenge.

"I just don't plan very well. I think week to week. I'm not too bad. I work pretty hard, but really, whatever happens, happens.

"I've got to say that this is a fantastic group to work with, I'm thoroughly enjoying what we're doing.

"There is the pull factor of family at home -- but when the weather's like this, it's pretty hard to give up Ireland. Both days of it!"

Schmidt's side can create more history this weekend by becoming only the fifth side -- and the first since Wasps in 2004 -- to complete a domestic league and European Cup double.

Yet, they must do so against their bogey team -- Ospreys have already done the double against them in the regulation season -- and without a clutch of their Twickenham heroes.

O'Brien underwent a secret knee procedure this week in order to keep alive his slim hopes of representing Ireland on the summer tour to New Zealand.

Healy (quad) is another who succumbed this week, picking up a knock in training that has, for now, ensured he must face a late fitness test, and even then he will only start from the bench.

With Shane Jennings and Heinke van der Merwe replacing the injured duo, there are also two other changes in the pack; Sean Cronin steps in for Richardt Strauss, while Devin Toner replaces World Cup winner Brad Thorn.

concerns

The back-line is unchanged.

Ospreys have no new injury concerns, but start with Rhys Webb at scrum-half, relegating the equally effective Kahn Fotuali'i to the bench, with the retiring magician Shane Williams and Bath-bound Paul James bidding to end their Welsh club careers on a high.

Ospreys are continuing to shred their lily-livered reputation as quickly as they are shedding players; from the side that won this final here two seasons ago, nine of the 19 who took to the field have already left or are leaving.

Nothing like a dynasty, but still a soap opera.

They seek another watershed occasion, but it's difficult to see Leinster denied for a third successive year in the final.

It seems extraordinary, but, Leinster began planning for this game in the final 10 minutes of the Heineken Cup final.

Then again, they are an extraordinary team.

Verdict: It may not be pretty, but Leinster to shade it.

Leinster -- R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, S Cronin, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Toner, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: R Strauss, C Healy/J McGrath, N White, B Thorn, D Ryan, J Cooney, I Madigan, D Kearney.

Ospreys -- R Fussell; H Dirksen, A Bishop, A Beck, S Williams; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, R Hibbard, A Jones, A Wyn Jones (capt), I Evans, R Jones, J Tipuric, J Bearman. Reps: S Baldwin, R Bevington, A Jarvis, J King, T Smith, K Fotuali'i, M Morgan, T Isaacs.

REF -- R Poite (France).

Leinster v Ospreys,

Live, tomorrow, RTE 2, BBC 2, 4.0

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