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2010-2011 Season Preview

Rugby's not a fairytale! - Michael Cheika

Alas it's true!

The perfect ending to Michael Cheika's Leinster career was not to be as the Ospreys earned a deserved win at the RDS in the Magners League Grand Final last May. So Leinster were denied a third trophy in three seasons and a fitting end to so many playing and coaching careers. However it's typical of Cheika's honesty that he summed it up in such a blunt, no-nonsense manner. If there's one thing that Cheika has left as a legacy to the squad it's that brutal, searching honesty.

Cheika has left to take over at Stade Francais now but his time at Leinster will never be forgotten. When he arrived he found a group of players with immense talent, but who didn't have the hard-nosed attitude to really be successful. He had his ups and downs in his time at Leinster. There were the brilliant away wins in Bath and Toulouse in 2006, before being brought down to earth by the crushing defeat to Munster in the Lansdowne Road semi-final. In 2007 a promising season fizzled out with crushing defeats away to Wasps in Europe and Cardiff in the Magners League. In 2008 a Heineken Cup campaign that started with a victory over Leicester was destroyed by an away defeat to Edinburgh. Leinster were out of Europe before Christmas and things were looking bleak for Cheika.

However it proved to be the turning point and Leinster dug deep to go on a seven-match winning run in the Magners League. The title was all but secured with a hard-fought win on a horrible wet night in Llanelli. With the championship secured, Cheika then made his most important signing of his Leinster career when he persuaded Rocky Elsom to join for a season. Elsom inspired the squad to redemptive wins over Wasps and Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup group stages. What followed became legend.

First was the heroic defensive stand that secured a 6-5 win away to Harlequins (which featured the infamous 'bloodgate' incident). Then came the most hyped match in Irish rugby history as Croke Park hosted Munster v Leinster in the semi-final. Leinster's chances were openly derided in the media but that made the comprehensive 25-6 win all the sweeter. It was revenge for three years earlier and the day Leinster rugby finally earned respect. In the final in Edinburgh, Leinster beat Leicester in a topsy-turvy match that swung one way and another. But Leinster had done it and after four years Michael Cheika had the cup he prized most.

His final season in charge was ultimately fruitless but did contain some fine moments, in particular defeating Munster three times and beating Clermont in a classic Heineken Cup quarter-final. They ultimately lost to eventual champions Toulouse in the semi-final and despite topping the table in the Magners League, they lost out on the trophy to the Ospreys.

As big an anti-climax as it was, it does not diminish Cheika's reputation. He transformed Leinster both in terms of professionalism and organisation. He also created a genuine winning culture that the many young players he blooded have grown up with. Before he arrived, Leinster players went into games hoping to win, but now they go in expecting to win. Some of the performances last season weren't that great in terms of quality but Leinster hung on to win often out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Cheika was a tough boss, no doubt but all the players had immense respect for him. The supporters will always welcome him back whenever he's in town as he will always be the man who brought home our first Heineken Cup.

So Joe Schmidt has some big boots to fill. He arrives as a champion himself having helped Clermont win the French Championship for the first time in their history. Of course, there he was the assistant to Vern Cotter, so this will be his first head coaching job after a distinguished career to date as a number two. He'll take charge of an almost completely new coaching team, with only forwards coach Jonno Gibbs remaining from last year's ticket. Guy Easterby has replaced Chris Whitaker as team manager, Richie Murphy has been promoted to skills coach and Greg Feek has arrived to be a specialist scrum coach. Arguably the biggest loss was defensive coach Kurt McQuilkin and his replacement has yet to be found so Schmidt and Ireland's Les Kiss will fill the void temporarily.

There is bound to be a transitional phase as the players get used to Schmidt's ways. With the rule changes in the emphasis on releasing the player in the tackle leading to less kicking and more counter-attacking, Schmidt's style of rugby may be very timely. In truth a lot of Leinster's rugby last season wasn't that attractive and only Connacht scored fewer tries in the Magners League. They were able to win a lot of games though through good defence and a very valuable ability to dog out a win when things weren't going their way. Schmidt's task will be to improve the quality of the rugby while also retaining that ruthless winning mentality.

He won't be aided by the fact that, with the World Cup coming up next year, he will have less access to his Irish internationals than normal. With an extended twenty two match Magners League schedule due to the arrival of the Italian teams, he'll probably only have his Ireland players for half those games or less. The young guys did well last season but they were hugely aided by having the experience of Malcolm O'Kelly, Bernard Jackman and Girvan Dempsey around. They are all now retired so the young lads will have to stand on their own two feet. It might lead to some disappointing results in the short term but the experience should be invaluable for the youngster's development.

Last season saw the retirement of some Leinster stalwarts and this season could be the last for the biggest name of them all, Brian O'Driscoll. In the giddy aftermath of the Grand Slam and Heineken Cup triumph O'Driscoll hinted at extending his career beyond the World Cup but the physical punishment he took last season and on the Lions tour has probably put paid to that. For his own long term health it would probably be better for him to finish up before he takes too many more of those worrying bangs to the head. Shane Horgan and Gordon D'Arcy are the other two legends left and though D'Arcy has signed a two year deal it remains to be seen if this is Horgan's last season. With the end in sight for these players hopefully their lust for more silverware will inspire the squad to send them off in style.

If things weren't tough enough for Schmidt, Leinster have also been drawn in the toughest Heineken Cup pool in their history. ASM Clermont are one of the finest sides in Europe and now that they finally got the monkey off their backs by winning last season's Top 14, they may well target Europe. Saracens came within a whisker of winning the Guinness Premiership last season and they've recruited strongly for this term. Racing Metro Paris are probably the least well known team in the pool but they did very well last season with their huge pack and they've recruited more big names for this season. Their impressive start in their domestic tournament, where they've already beaten Toulon and Clermont is testament to that. So there are no easy games and away wins will be like gold dust. It's likely that a team with one away win and the most bonus points will top the group and the rest will be out.

Further bad news is that Schmidt will be without his captain Leo Cullen probably until Christmas because of injury. Kevin McLaughlin is unlikely to see much action until then either and Stan Wright's ruptured Achilles tendon means that two little known props, Simon Shawe and Ben Prescott, have been recruited at very short notice.

So all in all it looks like a fairly daunting season ahead for Leinster. On the positive side though, Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O'Brien are back and look raring to go after they both missed most of last season with injury. There is also a huge amount of young talent both in the squad and the academy that will be looking to grab their chance when it comes.

As supporters we may have to be patient as Schmidt's ideas could well take a while to sink in. In any case, it promises to be a very interesting season.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-09-02