Scarlets opener a tad early for Blues


Coach Joe Schmidt is still experimenting ahead of RaboDirect opener at Scarlets, writes GERRY THORNLEY

BEING THE bulk suppliers to the Ireland team, it stands to reason Leinster are the hardest hit of the dozen protagonists who set out on the 2012-13 RaboDirect Pro 12 League campaign this coming weekend. The European champions haven’t won their opening league game for five seasons and little about the preamble to this Saturday’s trek to the Scarlets will have their supporters stampeding to the bookies to back them.

In addition to the 12 players who toured New Zealand (one of whom, Seán O’Brien, will not be back until November), another four are still recovering from surgery and will be sidelined until well into the season, namely Luke Fitzgerald (December/January), Eoin O’Malley (late October), Dave Kearney (late October) and Rhys Ruddock (mid-to-late October).

Their summer tourists rejoin squad training today after completing their pre-seasons and as all bar three started two or three Tests, according to Joe Schmidt “the vast majority of them” are not liable to be available again until rounds three or four of the Pro 12, away to Treviso or Edinburgh at home, and will thus miss Saturday’s opener and the first home game against the Dragons.

Those with a lighter load in New Zealand, such as Seán Cronin and Eoin Reddan (who were confined to appearances off the bench) and Gordon D’Arcy (who started the second Test) may return next week. Otherwise, Leinster are set to start their league campaign with the core of the callow squad which completed three pre-season friendlies with a 10-all draw away to Sale last Friday after beating Gloucester (33-22) and losing to Northampton (43-0).

Schmidt and his squad are “excited” about a new competitive season.

“While you get an indication during the pre-season games as to where you are at, the harsh reality doesn’t strike until that first game. Unfortunately that harsh reality has been in the negative for us in the last two seasons,” he said in reference to the last two opening defeats, away to the Ospreys (27-3) and Glasgow (22-19). Leinster also lost at home to Glasgow in round three last year and away to Treviso and Edinburgh in rounds three and four two years ago.

“We would like to start positively. Obviously that’s going to be difficult against a Scarlets side that have recruited really well,” said Schmidt. “They’ve strengthened their tight five, they have super loose forwards I really like (Josh) Turnbull, (Rob) McCusker and (Kieran) Murphy, they’ve some of their top quality backs back in. It’s exciting, because of the quality of the opposition and it is a massive opportunity for some of the younger players.”

Come round four, Schmidt is also mindful of not reintroducing nine or 10 front-liners simultaneously. His options have been limited by the absence of four back-rowers and four centres, prompting Schmidt to play Ireland Under-20 backrower Jordan Coghlan at inside centre in the last two games.

“I wouldn’t say it was an instant success but there was enough promise not to be considered a failure either,” said Schmidt. “He’s a good athlete, he’s a good young kid and he has been flexible about having a try in the midfield as opposed to playing in the backrow.”

“He’s got the shape, size and speed of someone who could be pretty useful there,” added the coach of the 1.96m (6ft 5in), 103 kg (16 st 3 lb) Coghlan, not exactly the prototype of Leinster centres as defined by messrs O’Driscoll and D’Arcy.

“As the lads said to me, ‘Jordan’s got no right being in the midfield in centre Leinster. You’ve got to be four foot nothing and 60 kilos’. But I think it just allows you a little bit more of a change-up and a physical presence.”

One of the best coaches of this or any other era, Schmidt’s name is bound to be linked with the Lions coaching set-up for next summer’s odyssey to Oz, alongside fellow Kiwi Warren Gatland. Schmidt reckons he is unlikely to feature and said there had been no contact of any kind, but did concede it would be a fantastic opportunity, if one, he reckons, more likely to be afforded Welsh assistant coach Rob Howley.

“I thought Wales did a great job down there,” he added in reference to their unlucky 3-0 series defeat to Australia in June. “The rugby was very competitive and quite open and good viewing.

“I think it would be a fantastic opportunity with whoever’s involved in that group.

“I would be flattered if they were interested,” he added with a broad smile. “I played with and against Gats when we were a lot younger men, and he was also coaching with the Chiefs when I was coaching with the Blues, so we’ve obviously gone head to head a few times as well.”

Noting the forecast would be pretty good too, he nonetheless added: “I can categorically say that I haven’t been approached. So I don’t think it’s going to be me.”

BROKEN NECK: Ansbro expected to return to action in about three months

Despite suffering a broken neck in his side’s pre-season victory over Munster at Musgrave Park on Friday night, the London Irish and Scotland centre Joe Ansbro did not suffer nerve damage, and thus will not have to undergo surgery. Indeed, he could be back playing in three months, writes Gerry Thornley.

Play was held up for 10 minutes during the second half before the 11-times capped, 26-year-old was stretchered off and he will remain in University Hospital Cork until the end of the week.

“He’s got a triple fracture of the C1 vertebrae at the top of his spine,” Ansbro’s father Paul told BBC Scotland. “They’ve put a metal halo on his head that’s got to be in place 24/7 for three months.

“They did a CAT scan and an MRI scan, and they’ve had a neurosurgeon looking after him. He was really lucky that it was what they call a stable fracture and there’s no nerve damage. That was the thing they were most concerned about; Joe’s still got movement in his hands and feet.”

While a statement by London Irish did not speculate upon Ansbro’s return, Scotland team doctor James Robson expects him to resume playing in around three months.

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