Schmidt believes in sporting miracles
Heineken Cup Pool Five:Understandably, Leinster believe in miracles. Just hark back to May 21st, 2011 and that astonishing 40 minutes of rugby witnessed in Cardiff.
Behind 22-6 at half-time, with a rampant Northampton scrum seemingly steamrolling their way to the podium in the Heineken Cup final, Jonathan Sexton responded with two tries and 28 points for a 33-22 turnaround. It was a mind-blowing achievement with Sexton’s brilliance complemented by Seán O’Brien’s tractoring carries down the tramline as everyone else waded in behind for what can now be viewed as a sporting miracle.
Nearly two years on, the defending champions must produce similar levels of excellence over consecutive weekends against the Llanelli Scarlets at the RDS tomorrow and in Exeter seven days later to remain in the competition.
Talk of miracles seems less ridiculous considering O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and probably Isa Nacewa are fit again.
“I might be naïve but, yeah, I do believe in miracles,” said Schmidt yesterday. “That’s one of the reasons people love sport because they want to see the miracle. They don’t come up too often so you treasure them when they happen. We’ve had a couple in the past couple of years that will certainly be indelibly etched on my memory and I’d love to get another very good memory in the next two weeks.”
With the accepted need for bonus points from both games, the Kiwi coach was asked if they are considering changes to their established approach come 6pm tomorrow. As Schmidt started to answer, he was interrupted. “No,” said Kearney, making his coach smile and immediately reminding everyone of the enormous advantage gained by the fullback’s rapid return from back surgery.
“We haven’t spoken about bonus points at all this week. It would be disrespectful to the opposition. We won’t change anything. First and foremost we’ll just try and win the game doing the things we always do, just do them better.”
Kearney was banging the player drum yesterday; focus on the processes and let permutations look after themselves. However, should Leinster have two tries banked around the hour mark Schmidt will increase his influence on proceedings with some tactical nuances. “That’s always part of coaching. If we have any sort of buffer on the scoreboard we might try and chase the game a bit more. But we’ll focus on getting the buffer first,” said Schmidt.
Schmidt proved yesterday, yet again, to have a superior grasp of statistics than his inquisitors by diluting the theory that Leinster’s try-scoring abilities have been blunted this season. “We’re only just behind Ulster in the PRO12 for tries scored so we actually have a really good record. Just not in the Heineken Cup. Exeter are difficult to score against, Scarlets away we got a buffer on the scoreboard and probably started playing a little conservatively than we normally would have. At the same time, they are a tough enough team to break down.
“People made a lot of the tries scored by Clermont but after two games against them they got one and we got two. The quality of opposition in our pool makes it difficult to get tries and we haven’t had continuity in selection. We have had a number of guys coming in and out. We’ve probably used more guys in the Heineken Cup than ever before. That’s interrupted our flow a little bit.”
Kearney and, more importantly, O’Driscoll’s return should guarantee the creation of more try-scoring opportunities.
Job one, Schmidt continued, will be to establish front-foot possession for these strike-runners so the set piece will be paramount against a Scarlets team that was obliterated 47-17 in Ravenhill last Friday.
As usual the referee will have a significant impact come scrum-time. Leinster and Munster have encountered problems here of late, forcing both Schmidt and his counterpart Rob Penney to write scathing reviews of certain individual refereeing performances after the PRO12 and European matches.
French referee Jerome Garces takes charge tomorrow. There is a growing habit in the Top 14, which is creeping into European games, for officials to award penalties rather than reset scrums. The preference, seemingly, is to avoid a quagmire situation despite uncertainty over which frontrow is actually offending.
The main fitness worries on either side are Nacewa (arm) and gigantic Welsh winger George North (neck), but both are expected to be named when the teams are released at noon.
Bringing closure: Connacht to confirm Lam’s three-year deal
Connacht will bring closure to their process of finding a successor to Eric Elwood today when confirming that the Samoan legend and former captain Pat Lam will take over at the province from next season onwards.
The 35-times capped Lam has signed a three-year deal to assume the reins at Connacht after four years coaching the Auckland provincial side and another four at the Auckland Blues.
In 2011 he guided the Blues to a first Super rugby semi-final since 2007 but despite a late rally last year he was replaced by John Kirwan after an unhappy post-World Cup campaign which, he claims, has made him a better coach.
Since then he was co-opted onto the Samoan coaching ticket for their November tour, in which wins over Canada and Wales, and a narrow defeat to France, saw them rise from 10th to seventh in the world rankings and secure a second-tier seeding for the World Cup draw.
The 35 times capped Elwood indicated his intention to step down last October and it is unclear what all of this will mean for his current assistants, Billy Millard and Dan McFarland. Connacht would probably prefer some element of continuity, while also allowing Lam elbow room in the choice of his back-up team, but it is understood that both assistants are out of contract at the end of the season.
– GERRY THORNLEY