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Leinster Rugby vs Connacht Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 1st January 2011, 17:30

Television: Live: TG4

Leinster begin the new year with a derby match against Connacht. It's just past the mid-point of our regular season fixtures having played half our Magners League games and four of the six Heineken Cup pool matches. So what better time to have a look at how Leinster are progressing under their new coach Joe Schmidt.

When Schmidt was announced as Michael Cheika's replacement, questions were asked. Certainly he had an impressive CV, but it was all as an assistant. Would he be able to handle the pressure of being the main man in charge? He was certainly known as a player's coach, and he had Isa Nacewa's hearty endorsement from their time together at Auckland, but would he be too nice? After the hard-nosed Cheika regime, would the players respond with diligence or laziness to a more relaxed management style?

Things did not start well. There was two heavy defeats in pre-season games against Wasps and Leicester (although with the respective strengths of the teams these were inevitable and largely irrelevant). However, in the opening Magners League game away to Glasgow they threw away a fine first half with an awful second half performance to lose a game they should have won handily. They responded by beating Cardiff at home, although once again there was a sketchy second half performance. There followed two terrible defeats away to Treviso and to Edinburgh who scored a four-try bonus point with time to spare.

Questions were being asked about Schmidt's future in the more hysterical sections of the media and even the pre-season games were being lumped into a 'won 1 - lost 5' record. Coming into the game against Munster in the Aviva Stadium, with the Heineken Cup games following shortly after, Leinster were under serious pressure. If they lost all three games their season would be effectively over.

Leinster won all three games!

There was an imperfect but gutsy win over Munster, a terrific five-try hammering of Racing Metro at the RDS and another excellent win over Saracens in Wembley Stadium. More than that, Leinster were starting to play some really good rugby. Even in the games they struggled in at the start of the season, there was short sparks of the game Schmidt was trying to get them to play. It's a high-tempo game, where the emphasis was on attacking with the ball in hand through both the forwards and backs. It was the sort of rugby Leinster had seen at the start of the Cheika era but which had largely disappeared in later years when David Knox departed and the emphasis switched to grinding out results.

Three more games were won against Connacht, Edinburgh and the Dragons before the run came to an end, somewhat unfortunately, away to the Ospreys. There followed a draw away to the Scarlets, when Jonny Sexton left his kicking boots at home. Then came the big double-header with mighty Clermont that would effectively decide the Heineken Cup pool. With a lengthy injury list largely due to injuries picked up in the Ireland Autumn Internationals, things were looking grim. However they responded with two magnificent performances, first in earning a losing bonus point away from home before crushing the French Champions at the Aviva.

Now firmly in control of their own fate in their Heineken Cup pool, Leinster set their sights towards reclaiming their place in the top four of the Magners League. Last Monday they made a statement of intent in going to Ravenhill, a place Leinster lost last season, to crush Ulster 30-13. This was despite having made nine changes from the team that started against Clermont. Schmidt said at the start that he intended to build a world-class squad and that players would be rotated to suit games and he's been true to his word. Two positions he's rotated in particular have been scrum-half and loose head prop. Yet, when he's made the calls, he's been completely justified in his selections. Equally he's been true to his promise of giving young players a chance and in most cases they've thrived as they've been placed with more experienced players beside them rather than thrown in altogether in one large group.

But leaving opinion aside, let's look at Schimdt's statistics. In the Heineken Cup they've won three out of four and though there's work to be done yet, they are in prime position to top the pool. In the Magners League, they've won six and drawn one out of eleven games, but seven of them have been on the road. With seven of their remaining eleven games at home, Leinster look well placed for a top four finish and possibly even a top-two finish which would grant them a home semi-final. Munster's consistency might make them hard to catch at the top of the table but as Leinster found out last season, there are no prizes handed out for that anyway so the top-two finish would be fine.

Defensively there were worries after Leinster conceded 9 tries in the first four games. There was talk of an emergency SOS being sent to former defensive coach Kurt McQuilkin. Since the Munster game though they've only conceded 10 tries in their last 11 games. This is the type of miserliness that characterised the McQuilkin era and as they are without a specialist defensive coach still, Schmidt has been doing the job himself.

There is no doubt that as an offensive unit Leinster have progressed. Last season they scored 50 tries in 28 games, including four knockout matches. This season they've already scored 35 tries in 15 games, a pretty healthy sum halfway through the season. Yet for all that, you feel Leinster can improve even further in this regard, the more they play this style of rugby the better they seem to get at it.

All in all, you'd have to say Schmidt's tenure has had a remarkably healthy start, although he'll know more than anyone that there are no trophies handed out at this time of year. As good as his team have been, he'll be keen to keep their feet on the ground by pointing out the areas in which they can improve, such as converting chances when camped close to the opposition line. He'll want to make sure they keep well focused and don't get complacent with the visit of Connacht.

Connacht had a positive start to the season but their defeat at home to Leinster back in October began a seven game losing streak in all competitions. Injuries have hindered them no doubt, but it's noticeable that while they've been losing, they still haven't been suffering the type of heavy defeats that were so common under Michael Bradley. In five of those seven games they only lost by a score so they've remained competitive despite everything.

They've also been boosted in the meantime by a declaration from the IRFU that their future is secure. They've been able to sign players on new long-term contracts and there's been a proviso that young talent from the three other provinces will be lent to them to get game time. The theory behind this is all well and good, but the downside to that is these players will eventually leave. It has been confirmed that three players who came to Connacht to get first-team action, Sean Cronin, Fionn Carr and Ian Keatley, will leave at the end of the season. Keatley is supposedly going to Munster and Cronin and Carr to Leinster and though Elwood isn't too pleased about this, he accepts this is a part of the deal. However long-term, Elwood knows Connacht will have to develop their own players who want to play for their own province. In this respect the development of the likes of Tiernan O'Halloran, Eoin Griffin, Eoin McKeon and Dermot Murphy is very positive.

Despite all their injuries and woes, Connacht really should have beaten Munster in their match on Monday. They were denied a penalty try in injury time by referee David Wilkinson, yet you wonder if any other Irish province would have been denied in similar circumstances. Connacht fans often feel they get poor treatment from Irish referees and when you see decisions like that, you begin to wonder if they're right.

Elwood has named a team that shows seven changes (one positional) from the team that started against Munster. They still have plenty of injuries but they've eased somewhat so he's able to name a relatively strong line-up. There's a big boost in the front row where Brett Wilkinson is fit to return at loose head to form a very strong scrummaging unit with Jamie Hagan and Adrian Flavin, who replaces the rested Sean Cronin. The only other change in the pack sees young number eight Eoin McKeon replace the injured Ezra Taylor. In the backs Miah Nicora has recovered from illness to reclaim his place at out-half, which means Ian Keatley switches to outside centre. Eoin Griffin and Brian Tuohy replace Darragh Fanning and Fionn Carr on the wings and Keith Matthews continues to captain the team from the centre in John Muldoon's absence. It's a team picked with next Thursday's vital clash against the Dragons in mind, so big guns like Carr and Niva Ta'auso are held back on the bench, but it's still strong enough to cause Leinster problems if they take them lightly.

Due to an Ireland training camp this week, Schmidt has named a Leinster team that shows eight changes from the side that started against Ulster. The big news is that Kevin McLaughlin is fit to play after missing all the season to date after recovering from knee and shoulder surgery. In his absence, Sean O'Brien, Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock have all played superbly in the number six jersey but we shouldn't forget how good 'Locky' was last season and he'll be eager to show Schmidt what he can do. He takes his place in an all-Irish international Irish backrow with O'Brien continuing at number eight and Shane Jennings captaining the team from openside. Leo Cullen gets a rest this week, so Nathan Hines comes in to replace Devin Toner. In the front row Richardt Strauss and Clint Newland come in for Jason Harris-Wright and Mike Ross, who drops to the bench.

In the backs Eoin O'Malley has recovered from the rib injury that he picked up away to Clermont to replace Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre alongside Fergus McFadden. Scrum-half Paul O'Donohue gets a rare start in place of Isaac Boss, who was outstanding versus Ulster. Shaun Berne will partner him at half-back and in such a young backline his experience will be invaluable. There is one final change in the back three where Shane Horgan gets a well-deserved rest and young Andrew Conway gets another run on the wing. Isa Nacewa will again take the kicks from full-back and Dave Kearney retains his place on the left wing after his most complete performance to date against Ulster. It's a measure of the strength of the squad that even with eleven Ireland internationals unavailable either through injury or being rested, Schmidt can still name such a strong team.

It's Leinster's first game at the RDS since mid-November and so much has happened in the meantime that it's almost seems a lifetime ago. The Aviva was great for the Clermont match, but it'll be nice to back home. With people looking for a distraction from their New Year's Eve hangovers, hopefully there will be close to a full house there to cheer the lads on. Connacht won't be a pushover, they never are, but hopefully Leinster will continue with their recent form and that should prove too much for the men from the West.

Happy New Year!!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Connacht Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Troy Nathan
Andrew Conway
14 Eoin Griffin
Eoin O'Malley
13 Ian Keatley
Fergus McFadden
12 Keith Matthews (C)
Dave Kearney
11 Brian Tuohy
Shaun Berne
10 Miah Nikora
Paul O'Donohoe
9 Cillian Willis

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Brett Wilkinson
Richardt Strauss
2 Adrian Flavin
3 Jamie Hagan
Nathan Hines
4 Michael Swift
Devin Toner
5 Michael McCarthy
Kevin McLaughlin
6 Andrew Browne
Shane Jennings (C)
7 Johnny O'Connor
Sean O'Brien 8 Eoin McKeon

Replacements Tom Sexton
16 Dermot Murphy
Jack McGrath
17 Rodney Ah You
Mike Ross
18 Dylan Rogers
Ed O'Donoghue
19 Bernie Upton
Stephen Keogh
20 Mike McComish
Eoin Reddan
21 Frank Murphy
Ian Madigan
22 Niva Ta'auso
Niall Morris
23 Fionn Carr

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stan Wright,
Rob Kearney,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Paul Ryan

Ray Ofisa,
John Muldoon,
Ezra Taylor,
Tiernan O'Halloran,
Gavin Duffy,
Ronan Loughney
Officials Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Jude Quinn (both IRFU)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-12-31