Schmidt hails ‘super’ Saints

WITH everyone short of Queen Elizabeth tipping Leinster to claim a second Heineken Cuptitle tomorrow, it was interesting to note just how much attention was paid to Northampton at the Irish province’s press briefing yesterday.

It wasn’t as if Joe Schmidt and Leo Cullen were bombarded with questions about the Saints. All it took was a pair of polite and perfunctory enquiries regarding the English side to elicit a stream of gushing praise from the Leinster coach.

Talking up an opponent is not exactly a break from sporting traditions but Schmidt’s marathon 400-word response to one general query included a glowing player-by-player appraisal and an equally positive thumbs-up for the coaching ticket at Franklin’s Gardens.

“Jim Mallinder has done a really good job with Northampton,” said Schmidt. “With Dorian West there as well they have got a real edge to them and there are a lot of comparisons being made in the last week with the Leicester way and what Northampton were doing.

“He has brought those elements as well so, first of all, there is the clarity in what they do and I don’t think they try to depart too much from what is their core. At their core what they do is very, very good and they have got the sort of personnel that are very good at it.”

Schmidt then launched into his player-by-player appraisal and it was just as well that he was flanked by the experienced pair of Jamie Heaslip and Cullen when he did. A rookie would have been thoroughly spooked by what he heard.

Cullen hardly needed the recap and will be all too aware of the weaknesses which his coach studiously avoided, having spent two seasons pursuing his trade 40 miles up the M1 in Leicester and playing in the East Midlands derby on six occasions.

“They went through a bit of a phase there where they had potential but never quite managed to produce it,” said Cullen of the 2000 Heineken Cup champions. “The best thing was when they got relegated (in 2007). Mallinder and Dorian West came in and they had their plan. (Keith)Barwell (the owner) got pushed to the back seat, as he says himself. Owners running rugby teams is maybe not the best thing but they have come on in leaps and bounds since then.

“They have the base there with the ground and the supporters. They have always had their off-field stuff but they have got their on-field stuff now and they are a real force in England. There are a few clubs run along sustainable models and Northampton are one of them.”

The loss of the flanker Tom Wood has, whatever Leinster may say, compromised their ambitions of backing up the 2000 success but the reality is that Heineken Cup finals are invariably nail-biters. Twelve of the 15 to date have been decided by a converted try or less.

With margins so small, experience will count. Leinster’s greater familiarity with the occasion — and the venue — has been stressed in the run up but their edge here isn’t as pronounced as generally thought as almost half of their likely squad will be featuring in their first European decider.

That also goes for their coach.

Schmidt has come a long way since the start of the season when a handful of losses in the Magners League with a depleted team led to a brief and quickly discredited campaign for his removal but the season’s slog has only invigorated him if anything.

“I feel pretty fresh, to be honest. I don’t think there is a day I haven’t worked but we are all energised by the challenge we have got in front of us and the opportunity as well, so you don’t want to miss a minute of it.

“Like everyone, I have tried to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘t’ and make sure you have done everything you can but my job is all but finished and the leaders in the group like Leo and Jamie really take hold from here.

“Hopefully they will really drive the team through to a good performance. I don’t think we can talk about results because it’s not a controllable for us. What we can do is focus on what we do and what we need to do well.”

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