Schmidt taking nothing for granted
Rugby:Leinster will begin their quest to make Heineken Cup history on Saturday but head coach Joe Schmidt is not looking beyond the pool stage of this season’s competition.
Even for a team of Leinster’s pedigree, there is no guarantee they will progress from a group that also includes French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne, seasoned European campaigners Scarlets and impressive tournament newcomers Exeter.
Exeter are first up for Schmidt’s team at the RDS this weekend and with only one team from Pool Five likely to secure a quarter-final berth, Schmidt knows the pressure is on.
The ultimate prize for Leinster this term is a third successive Heineken Cup final triumph, a glorious hat-trick that no other team during the tournament’s 18-year existence has managed.
Leinster also won the competition in 2009, beating Leicester at Murrayfield, and they are the bookmakers’ favourites to be crowned champions on home soil in Dublin next May.
“Right now, our sole initial target is to get out of the group,” said Schmidt. “It is such a competitive pool that I think only one team will qualify for the quarter-finals, so I am not thinking about anything beyond our first match against Exeter. We have not played Exeter before but we are fully expecting them to be both extremely combative and expansive.
“They are a really positive outfit and in Ignacio Mieres they have a fine flyhalf who can vary the team’s game as necessary. Centre Jason Shoemark is another in top form and Wallaby Dean Mumm - a very athletic lock and genuine international-class player - has now arrived at the club and is sure to be a big player for them.
“Their coach Rob Baxter has done a great job in first getting them promoted and then taking them storming through the English league and into the Heineken Cup for the first time.”
The Scarlets will provide more familiar Heineken opposition for Leinster, and the Welsh side have already provided them with some painful memories this season.
Schmidt added: “While we do not know that much about Exeter, we do know the Scarlets pretty well. In our last meeting on the opening day of this season they put 45 points on us.
“They have quality across the board with a back-line packed with internationals like George North, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Priestland, and a back-row trio of Josh Turnbull, Aaron Shingler and Rob McCusker at the top of their individual and collective game.”
Back-to-back home and away fixtures against Clermont in December, though, are likely to be what decides the group.
It will be the fourth successive Heineken tournament for the teams to meet either at the pool or knockout stages, with Leinster edging their last meeting 19-15 in last season’s semi-finals. And to add further spice, Schmidt is the former Clermont coach who guided them to French Championship glory in 2010 before he joined Leinster.
“Clermont are not my preference as group opponents,” he said. “I would really like to see the back of them because they are a super team and so well coached. They do not really have a first-choice XV. They have 30 top-class players who they can mix and match and that makes them extremely difficult opponents.
“They had a couple of injuries ahead of last season’s semi-final in Bordeaux, and then lost Lee Byrne and Julien Malzieu during the game, so perhaps we had a bit of good fortune on that occasion.”