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Leinster squad have stepped up

FOR Joe Schmidt it was a case of old habits dying hard this week as he pored over footage to assess the opening weeks of the league campaign.

An English teacher by trade, Schmidt set about marking the squad's 'first-quarter' report card and the picture was certainly brighter than it was after week one.

With the opening days of a two-week hiatus for competitive action all but complete, the squad enjoyed a few days of deserved downtime after a gruelling schedule which began with pre-season training in the last week of June.

The coach also plans to have a few days off but with some of the returning internationals due back next week he knows that even bigger challenges lie ahead.

He has already started plotting the forthcoming trials which begin again with a trip to Edinburgh in a fortnight's time before the return of Munster to the Aviva Stadium, a week before the champions begin their defence of the Heineken Cup.

Schmidt graded Leinster's start to the season as "just a bit above average", after the 30-20 victory over Connacht, which saw the province move to joint second place in the RaboDirect PRO12 table.

"But when you consider where we were after week one, I'd take that!" he said. "There were a few frustrations along the way, not least that opening round defeat away to the Ospreys and obviously losing our home record against Glasgow, but overall - especially considering the disruptions we've had - I'm reasonably happy."

Obstructive

Part of a remit for any manager or coach is to find fault, not in an obstructive manner or to hold people back, but to keep on setting the bar higher. Schmidt tempers the disappointments with a degree of satisfaction at the manner in which the squad have coped under pressure, especially when coming back from half-time deficits in their last two matches.

He said: "When things are not going well you can measure yourself on how you bounce back.

"Take the Ospreys game for example. They hammered us in the first half but we showed a fair amount of resolve and did well in the second half to cross the line and dictate a lot of the play which denied them the opportunity to score a (four-try) bonus point.

"And then there was a real tenacity displayed by the squad to keep on fighting until the last minute to hold out Llanelli and register an away win at Parc y Scarlets.

"When you lose experienced players like Shane Horgan, Mat Berquist, Andrew Conway and new signing Steven Sykes, you need players to step up and a number of players did, seizing the initiative by displaying good form and leadership.

"A player like Dev Toner (pictured) has improved week by week which is great, while Rhys Ruddock captaining the side for this block of eight games (including the pre-season friendlies) has played across all three back row positions as well as coping with leading a relatively inexperienced young team.

"New players like Damian Browne and Leo Auva'a have added a good bit of grit to the pack and Leo has carried the ball more than 50 times over the last three games, which is an impressive statistic by anyone's standard.

"Luke (Fitzgerald) and Eoin O'Malley looked quite potent at times in what was a new midfield pairing, while it was great to see Dominic Ryan and Kev McLaughlin come back after injury. Ian Madigan is working hard on his game and did well to seal the Connacht win with an excellent drop goal."

He could go on all night citing the contributions of the squad and makes particular reference to the foreign axis of Isa Nacewa, Richardt Strauss and Heinke van der Merwe, who have all been mainstays during this critical, but disjointed, period in the calendar.

"There have been small success stories along the way which have fed into a stronger group dynamic, but we're loathe to start losing the run of ourselves because four of our six league games were at home, with only two away," said Schmidt.

"So there's an imbalance there. To lose our home record hurt but the players showed a fair bit of character over the last three weeks to bounce back and we have to push on when the league resumes later this month with what is always a tough trip to Edinburgh."

Before that there is the small matter of World Cup semi-finals which, following Ireland's defeat, Schmidt hopes can result in a New Zealand v France final.

Sentimental

"For sentimental reasons it would be great to have a repeat of the inaugural final (which the All Blacks won in 1987) and given my ties with France from my time with ASM Clermont Auvergne, it would be nice in that regard," he said.

"But obviously my loyalties are with New Zealand. Both semi-finals will be very tough and I'm especially looking forward to the All Blacks versus Wallabies clash.

"There's a crossover between the two squads with both teams coached by Kiwis - Graham Henry with the All Blacks and Robbie Deans coaching the Wallabies.

"And I suspect that Wales, with the form they've shown, won't be ready to roll over either so France will have plenty to do!

"It promises to be a great weekend of rugby."