During Matt Williams’ time in charge of Leinster, the Women’s Auxiliary Balloon Corps revolted. If memory serves correctly it was in the lead up to a Heineken Cup semi-final against Perpignan and was one of the reasons that Leinster and Williams parted company. The WABC was composed of squad players who held tackle bags for the Galacticos but never got selected ahead of the established stars.
Joe “The Milky Bar Kid” Schmidt’s reign has been marked by many positive features, among them Leinster’s ability to play a number of different systems, or whatever patterns are called these days, with a range of personnel. Basic skills are very good throughout the squad – check out the number of Leinster passes that arrive between shoulders and hips, and that don’t check the stride of the receiver. Look at the way that Leinster place the ball cleanly in almost every tackle, enabling quick recycling. While Leinster still has its stars, Sean O’Brien, Sexton, Heaslip etc, selecting Schmidt’s first team is more challenging than might be expected.
Schmidt appears to favour a different composition depending if the game is home or away, particularly in Europe. For the Bath game he has gone with Rob Kearney ; Nacewa, McFadden, D’Arcy, Fitzgerald; Sexton, Boss; vd Merwe, Strauss, Ross; Cullen, Browne; McLoughlin, O’Brien, Heaslip.
A bit like Graham Henry and his Prefects (McCaw, Thorn, Read, Smith, Carter), certain players seem set in stone. Others are selected as required. The away team has McFadden at second centre ahead of O’Malley. O’Malley has looked good in recent weeks but McFadden is a more forceful defender. D’Arcy keeps his place, despite assertions from some commentators that he is finished. Schmidt must still see things he likes in D’Arcy, because he’s ahead of some strong competition.
Isaac Boss starts at scrum half. Boss is a better defender than Reddan, although Reddan’s defence this season has been very good, and scores the odd try. Not as quick a decision maker, he’s able to take the ball up and recycle it due to strength and combativeness. Kev McLaughlin’s lineout prowess gets him the nod in the backrow ahead of Shane Jennings and allows Schmidt to pick big unit Damien Browne in second row for some ballast and biff. Richardt gets the nod at hooker ahead of Cronin and gives Leinster a ground hog in Jennings’ absence, albeit one that plays in the front row. Finally Heinke vd Merwe, a terrific technician, is picked ahead of Cian Healy. This gives Leinster a starting team with very solid set pieces and aggressive defenders.
It also sees a bench packed with ball carriers and game changers. At some stage Shane Jennings will make an appearance and provide Leinster with a genuine seven. Kev McLaughlin will make way and Devin Toner will arrive to present Leinster with a go-to lineout option in place of Browne. It is likely that the entire front row will be replaced, giving fresh legs in the scrum and ball carrying punch around the fringes – and out wide with Sean Cronin. Reddan will up the attacking pace with O’Malley and Madigan in reserve.
Schmidt won’t pick the same team for the return fixture, even with a clean bill of health and Leinster won’t play the same sort of game. This is a happy time for Blues’ fans and one that will be confirmed as a golden age should the Heineken Cup be recaptured. It’s tempting to think that things will always be like this but Schmidt’s excellent coaching, allied to the hunger of senior players is bringing the best from a talented squad and is difficult to replicate. Toulouse are the model to be followed over the longer term. In the short term, if you’re Leinster, enjoy watching your team perform like a team, even with changes to personnel.