As the TV camera’s left the room at Leinster’s midweek press conference, head coach Joe Schmidt turned to Sean O’Brien and joked, “You can relax now.”
There were still plenty of questions left to be fielded from the baying daily newspapers. However, you get the sense that at this time of the season, with Schmidt expecting ‘carnage’ in the weeks ahead; relaxation is thin on the ground so you have to get it wherever you can.
Leinster are gearing up for a tough inter-provincial tussle with Ulster on Saturday and it comes on the back of two, massively physical encounters with Leicester and Munster. So it’s not only down-time that is getting scarce, it is fully fit players.
Schmidt says they will make last minute decisions on five front-liners, including Shane Jennings, Isa Nacewa, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll. However, he is resisting the temptation to wrap his stars in cotton wool and throw all his eggs in one Heineken Cup basket:
“It’s almost a quarter final so there won’t be too much mixing around.” He said, “We’ve gotta get out and try to win this game because we lose control of our destiny if we don’t.”
“To have a chance of getting a home semi-final, we have to win on Saturday night.”
When the sides last met, Leinster ran out 13-30 winners at Ravenhill and O’Brien went over for two tries against the rivals from the north. He was wearing number eight that day but when asked whether he thought there would be less space for him to exploit around the rucks; O’Brien showed there was no time for modesty:
“I’ll just have to create it then, won’t I!” said the big back row, almost keeping a straight bullish face.
The Tullow Tank also causes problems for his own coach as Schmidt looks ahead to the season’s run in, trying to find a balance between protecting his players and getting them ready for battle in two competitions.
“It’s going to be carnage to a degree.” Schmidt said, “Because we’re already a little bit beaten up, so that makes you vulnerable.
“It’s pretty hard to wrap guys like Sean up: If he’s training and I say ‘50% contact’, then (what he gives) is everyone else’s hundred.
“Without turning a little soft on the players; they just know there are these short windows when we do go, and go pretty hard. But when it comes to the game they’ve got to be fresh and able enough. It’s a very difficult balance at the minute.”
The fluidity and assuredness of Leinster’s play makes it easy to forget that this is the Kiwi’s first major role as head coach. After honing his trade at the Auckland Blues and Clermont Auvergne, Schmidt admits that his first season didn’t always look like it would bear fruit, particularly during the opening weeks of the season.
“I think you learn more about the character of your players when times are a bit tough. I don’t know how the players felt but I felt times were a bit tough back then. Certainly I was being told by a lot of people that times were tough.
“The investment in that period was worthwhile in the long term. But I could have done a better job, I didn’t understand the players and the player welfare program and how I could best balance that – It was a very difficult beast to manage.”
Since the IRFU’s welfare program released the international contingent back to Leinster they have gone from strength to strength. And while they have not managed the consistency of Munster in the Celtic League this year, few would want to trade a European Cup semi-final for a place on top of the Magners table.
Currently the Eastern province is scrapping for any place they can get in the Magners playoffs. After Saturday’s clash with Ulster they will travel to Aironi before the final day league meeting with Glasgow. That game against the Warriors comes a week after the big one; when the Aviva will be packed out once again for the visit of Toulouse.
All in all their fixture list currently shows four games in the next four weeks, each one treated as a “quarter final” according to Schmidt. If they do well, then it will be seven in the next seven weeks as quarters turn into semis and then the prospect of two massive finals.
But Schmidt is showing no signs of tiring. If anything, his hunger for the task is growing and the message coming from his camp is unequivocal.
There will be plenty of time to relax in the summer. Until then, bring on the carnage!