Monday 22 January 2018

Cler' signs of progress

Fluent display of passing from Blues culls Zebre and bodes well for French tie

COACH Joe Schmidt was content to pick up five points from Leinster's five-try 37-7 performance against Zebre at The RDS on Saturday evening.

"We are where we are. We didn't want to under-estimate these guys," said Schmidt, in relation to Leinster's move into third-place in the PRO12 League.

"We were just happy to have got the four points initially and then the bonus point was exactly that, just a bonus for us. The real bonus is, I believe, that we have not picked up any more injuries."

There was a crispness and an accuracy to Leinster's passing that bodes well for Clermont-Auvergne against a Zebre outfit that initially refused to buckle under pressure.

With the Leinster forwards oiling the machine at ruck time, half-backs Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton were able to access that quick tempo that tears defences apart.

The first quarter sped by with the Zebre backs and forwards putting their bodies in the line of Leinster traffic. It wasn't until Sexton's 25th-minute penalty for the tackler not releasing that the home side made a first impression on the scoreboard.

Then, the total commitment of left wing Fergus McFadden onto a 50-50 ball allied to a step and right-arm fend-off ignited Leinster for Sexton to switch the point of attack for right wing Andrew Conway to saunter over in the 26th minute.

Italian international second row Quintin Geldenhuys was binned for not rolling away in the tackle. Captain Leo Cullen opted for an eight-against-seven scrum, Sexton eventually stretching to the line from a multi-phase assault.

The conversion from Sexton made it 17-0 and, realistically, brought the bonus-point into the equation. This emerged through further touchdowns from McFadden (2) and replacement prop Cian Healy.

Now that is out of the way, Schmidt would seem to have a decision to make in the centre where Clermont will have a world-class unit no matter who they go with next Sunday.

The clock will beat Eoin O'Malley. He just doesn't have any game time under his belt. Former Ireland U20 Brendan Macken has not shown the necessary speed of progress in his defence.

It would seem Schmidt has a clear choice between Gordon D'Arcy, Andrew Goodman and Fergus McFadden for the centre partnership. Of course, three into two won't go.

Will it be a D'Arcy-Goodman axis as practised on Saturday night? "It was good to get a look at that. Gordon D'Arcy is a smart player. You don't get 70 (international) caps without being smart and talented. He is the most capped Leinster player ever at 211.

'Ferg' has played a lot at thirteen for us. He trained a lot at thirteen this week and he ended up at the end of the game at thirteen.

"We did that a little bit later than we planned just because we wanted to run the other guys in the positions that they were in for longer."

The first time Schmidt's Leinster travelled to Clermont in December 2010, McFadden was hand-picked to marshall Fijiian "freight train", as Schmidt refers to him, Napolioni Nalaga for his combative nature in contact.

There must be a serious tendency for the coach to request that McFadden do in 2012 what he did so successfully in 2010, leaving Goodman and D'Arcy to roam the midfield.

The other area of real competition is in the back row where interim Ireland captain Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien must be rated as guaranteed selections.

It then becomes a meaningful scrap between Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings, as it was last season, to see who completes the back row with Rhys Ruddock, perhaps, also in line for a seat on the bench.

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