Schmidt has learned more about his players in the last week than he did in the previous eight, but the second-half injury to talisman O’Driscoll at the RDS on Saturday is a huge blow, even if captain Leo Cullen could be on the verge of a morale boosting return.
The Irish centre had to be helped from the field seconds after Racing Metro scored their only try of the game and Schmidt admitted there was a serious worry about his fitness for next week’s tie and beyond. The Irish coach Declan Kidney will be equally concerned in advance of the November series of international games.
Sean O’Brien was man of the match but O’Driscoll’s involvement in most things good, including the try of the match, was self-evident. No wonder there were audible groans when he pulled up in the 57th minute.
It wasn’t always clearcut for Leinster who had to battle hard to take control and then to stay in that position. Occasionally they looked like blowing it, but Cup experience is a key ally in these situations.
Schmidt was rightly chuffed with the contributions of Devin Toner, Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss, who played more influential roles than the coach dared possible. Unsung heroes, he called them.
“We identified Mike Ross’s improvement in the scrum and asked that he do the same around the field. Richardt carried well, defended tirelessly and was out on his feet at the end of the game. We also saw a lot more from Dev; like others he stood up in a manner we mightn’t have seen this season but it had to be done.
“Jamie (Heaslip) led from the front and Sean O’Brien did brilliantly, particularly from a defensive point of view against a pretty high quality side. We saw how they came back from almost 20 points down away to Toulouse last week and they had a go against us as well, so defence was particularly important,” he said.
Schmidt has made his name on coaching open-style rugby and a couple of Leinster’s tries had a training ground fluency about them. He added: “It’s the perfect start in the imperfect pool. We’re conscious that we have put ourselves into the mix, but it’s such a tough pool that we could be out of it again very quickly. I want the players to relax and enjoy the weekend, but come Monday the reality is that we must start all over and steel ourselves for the Saracens game next week.”
Leinster took a while to get into their stride but were full value for their 21-6 interval lead – thanks in part to two smashing tries from O’Brien and Rob Kearney, while Isa Nacewa was near flawless with three penalties and a conversion. The visitors responded with penalties from Jerome Filol and Francois Steyn.
Fillol kicked an early second-half penalty but Strauss quickly got Leinster’s third try before Racing hit back with a long range penalty from Steyn; Fillol then converted a sensational try from Albert Vuli Vuli to cut the deficit to seven at 26-19.
Leinster came out of that brief slumber to see Jamie Heaslip grab a 61st minute try that Nacewa converted. Fillol kicked a penalty but Leinster had the last say with substitute Shane Horgan sending Fergus McFadden away for an injury time try.
LEINSTER: R. Kearney, I. Nacewa, B. O’Driscoll, G. D’Arcy, L. Fitzgerald, J. Sexton, E. Reddan, H. Van der Merwe, R. Strauss, M. Ross, N. Hines, D. Toner, S. O’Brien, J. Heaslip (captain), S. Jennings.
Replacements: C. Healy for van der Merwe (52), F. McFadden for O’Driscoll (injured, 57), I. Boss for Reddan (59), D. Ryan for Jennings (67), S. Shawe for Ross (73), J. Harris-Wright for Strauss, S. Horgan for Sexton (both 75).
RACING METRO 92: F Steyn, S Bobo, A Vuli-Vuli, A Masi, J Saubade, J Fillol, N Durand, A Lo Cicero, B Noirot, J P Orlandi, L Nallet (captain), J Qovu, J Leo’o, S Chabal, J. Cronje.
Replacements: M Bergamasco for Masi, A Battut for Chabal (both 52), C. Festuccia, S. Dellape for Qovu (both 58), M. Loree for Durand (63), S. Zimmerman for Lo Cicero (71), J. Brugnaut for Orlandi (75), R. Vaquin (both 76).
Referee: D. Pearson (England).