herald

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Schmidt's aims put to test at saracens

Revived Blues will come to pass, but powerful English offer examination

It is true, you know, that the ball should always beat the man in rugby. You just have to put the ball in the right place at the right time. It sounds simple. It should be. It isn't.

Leinster centre Fergus McFadden allowed the kitten out of the bag this week when he revealed his coach Joe Schmidt's one rock solid season goal: "I want my backline to be the best passers in Europe."

It is certainly a goal worthy of pursuit and one deliverable out of the hands of gifted backs and forwards reared within the province on wide-eyed rugby. Leinster are developing their game. The progress from Munster to Racing-Metro was clear and present.

Now, Leinster have to take their sleight of hand with them on the road in Europe where there is an emphasis on performing under pressure against the powerful Saracens at Wembley this evening.

Their spiritual leader Brian O'Driscoll is a cornerstone of their development. He is hamstrung by injury, Luke Fitzgerald shifting into the outside centre slot and Shane Horgan coming in on the wing.

"Saracens are going to pose a big threat. They're going to be very physical in the middle of the park and in the back row with good ball carriers, a lot of pace out wide -- similar to ourselves," said Richie Murphy, the Leinster skills and kicking coach.

"They will probably turn up with a focus at paying the game at pace as they did in Clermont last week. They were unlucky then. We have great respect for them."

So Leinster should. Guinness Premiership Players' Player of the Year Schalk Brits will start in a formidable front row in between Springbok Deon Carstens and Italian Carlos Nieto.



Unlucky

There is plenty of bulk in the back five, led by former England captain Steve Borthwick, with lock Mouritz Botha and number eight Ernst Joubert summoned as the two changes from the side which was unlucky in Clermont last Saturday.

Leinster are moving towards a degree of self-confidence that puts a greater accent on imposing their game on Saracens, while scouting them out live and on video, rather than worrying about what the English club are going to do to them. To this end, Ireland's Cian Healy has been recalled as the second change from the side which wiped out Racing.

"Joe (Schmidt) does put a lot of emphasis on passing, the accuracy of it, putting it pinpoint in the right place, getting the ball out in front whether players are moving onto or off the pass," said Murphy.

"It is good for us. The drills he does are very specific. You are not just firing passes out. He is very picky on it. It will bring us on in that area and it will bring Ireland on because there are so many of the Leinster backs in the national squad.

"The way Joe wants to play the game, we have to be good passers of the ball. We try to play with width, not necessarily from first phase.

"We try to put the ball out in front of players. We spend a lot of time working on it.

"It is the focus on the individual skill of the player that is probably a little more than we've had before. The players have been asked to take responsibility for working on their skills.

"If the players aren't in a position to produce on the pitch, they won't get selected. Each player is made aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. We guide them towards working on the weaknesses to make the individual a more round player and, by extension, the team more rounded," continued Murphy.

More specifically, the breakdown is becoming obsolete in that it is almost impossible to turn the ball over. But, it can be slowed down just long enough to give the defensive line that extra split-second to organise itself.

"Your back rows have to be athletes. They have to be able to carry ball. They still have to be able to fight on the ground because there are opportunities there, just not as much as before," he said.

"What we are trying to do is pick footballers because they have to be all-rounders in carrying, passing and making impact tackles. There is no doubt about it. The more skills you have, the more strings it brings to your bow, the harder it is to defend against."



Sorely

The overall effectiveness of Leinster's developing style of play will be sorely tested by a free-moving Saracens intent on making a statement in Pool 2.

The equation is simple for Saracens -- lose and they are as good as out, win and they are right back in it. At present, they are down. Leinster must keep them there.

Saracens: A Goode; D Strettle, A Powell, B Barritt, C Wyles; D Hougaard, R Wigglesworth; D Carstens, S Brits, C Nieto, S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, J Burger, A Saull, E Joubert.

Leinster: R Kearney; S Horgan, L Fitzgerald, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, N Hines, D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).

3SARACENS v LEINSTER, SKY SP 1, KO 5.45

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