DONAL LENIHAN: Joe Schmidt left with serious soul searching to do

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse came the confirmation that there will be no Irish representation in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Johnny Sexton suffered yet another concussion as Leinster suffered their worst defeat in European competition.

Somebody needs to make a very serious call here concerning that young man’s medical wellbeing.

That is hardly the backdrop Joe Schmidt envisaged as Ireland assemble in Carton House today for Six Nations action.

In an incredible final day of action, Exeter Chiefs secured the last quarter-final slot by topping Pool 2 by virtue of a points differential of -3 after they, along with the Ospreys and Bordeaux, all finished on 16 points.

Clermont Auvergne blew their chance of advancing from that pool, failing to grasp the mathematical permutations and take a penalty kick from in front of the posts for the losing bonus point that would have seen them advance instead.

Ospreys’ failure to grind out a losing bonus point against Exeter also means that all eight quarter-finalists will now come from either the Aviva Premiership or French Top 14.

The very best Munster could have hoped for, given that their chances of qualification depended on a perfect storm of results from seven of the ten contests spread out over the weekend, was that the dream of a last eight spot would still be alive when they woke up in Treviso yesterday morning.

That unlikely scenario was shattered within 39 minutes of action on Saturday when Ulster flanker Sean Reidy dotted down for Ulster’s fourth try on the verge of half time. Leading by 25 points at that stage, Ulster were never going to implode in front of the Ravenhill faithful.

Joe Schmidt left with serious soul searching to do

In the circumstances it was far better from an Irish rugby perspective that Ulster secure that bonus point win in an effort to preserve an unbroken sequence of Irish quarter-final representation stretching back to the year they last conquered Europe back in 1999. Unfortunately results elsewhere put paid to that ambition with wins for Toulon, Stade Francais and Northampton securing the three best runners up slots at Ulster’s expense.

Ulster’s final winning margin of 53 points says as much about the Oyonnax mindset, having made 14 changes to their side coming into this game, as it did about the clinical efficiency of the Ulster performance. With each passing week the impressive stamp of new head coach Les Kiss is there for all to see.

The biggest plus from this outing for Schmidt surrounds the performance of Jared Payne showing the intelligence and deft touches that mark him as a key figure in Ireland’s Six Nations title defence.

Joe Schmidt left with serious soul searching to do

With two big games now under his belt after his recent foot injury, Payne is sure to feature against Wales in a fortnight.

The only question remaining is whether he will be handed his now familiar No 13 jersey or whether Schmidt will be tempted to shift him to his Ulster position of full back.

In addition, given the uncertainty surrounding Sexton, Schmidt will be pleased with the form of Paddy Jackson at out half who continuously attacked the gain line and played others into the game.

The fact that he continued his recent good form deprived of the armchair ride usually provided by Ruan Pienaar was another plus for all concerned.

With no chance of progressing to the last eight, Munster’s sole focus was directed towards building on the positives of that encouraging 26-13 win over Stade Francais in Thomond Park last time out.

A bonus point win was the least Munster would have expected from this fixture given the woeful form of their hosts this season.

Joe Schmidt left with serious soul searching to do

In 17 contests spread across the Champions Cup and Guinness Pro 12 prior to this game, Treviso failed to register a single win.

With Ronan O’Mahony touching down for Munster’s opening try in the 4th minute, Treviso were never going to win this one either. It was an indication of another stuttering performance from Munster that it took until the 66th minute for them to register that inevitable four try bonus point.

Munster must quickly park the disappointment of this campaign as they contemplate a quick return to northern Italy next week for the resumption of the Guinness Pro 12 against Zebre.

The success of their season now rests on a top four position in that competition at the very least.

The extent of Leinster’s second half collapse against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena was as shocking as it was unexpected. The hunger, energy and urgency that the young debutants brought to last week’s contest against Bath at the RDS was completely missing, relegating Leo Cullen’s men to the bottom of Pool 5 with just a single win from their six European outings this season.

Joe Schmidt left with serious soul searching to do

It didn’t help that their key playmaker and captain on the day Sexton lasted a mere nine minutes after an innocuous looking clash of heads with his former Leinster teammate Brendan Macken.

With that Six Nations opener against Wales now less than two weeks away that could not be worse timed. Marty Moore was also helped off after injuring his hamstring and with Mike Ross certain to miss the opening two games, Schmidt has even more issues to address after this weekend’s action.

With 11 of Ireland’s Six nations squad in Leinster’s starting side, Schmidt will also be very disappointed and concerned with aspects of their performance, not least a pretty toothless second half when the visitors conceded 36 points without reply.

With an aggregate score of 84-16 over the two Champions Cup meeting against a Wasps side currently sitting 6th in the Aviva Premiership, Leinster have some big issues to address after what has proved a disastrous campaign.

The big question now is what impact that is likely to have on Irish prospects over the next two months.


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