Schmidt splits the difference

No matter what way Joe Schmidt and the other three provincial coaches look at it, this is one of those weeks where there is no right or wrong when it comes to the troublesome business of team selection.

Do you play all your returning internationals in the one week between the November Tests and round four of the Heineken Cup or do you afford them some much-needed down time?

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Schmidt has opted to split the difference this time. Seven of Leinster’s international contingent, including South Africa’s Heinke van der Merwe, will start tonight’s Pro12 fixture against Zebre but another two — Cian Healy and Mike Ross — have been detailed with light duties off the bench. Jamie Heaslip and Richardt Strauss have been handed a full weekend’s leave.

Heaslip has long let it be known he is no devotee of TV rugby but it is difficult not to envisage the latest Irish captain sitting down at 1pm for a sneak peek at the Toulouse-Clermont game what with their own trip to France on the cards next week. Leinster’s own business should be less taxing later in the evening even if Zebre have shown signs of getting it together after a predictably torturous beginning to a season which is the maiden voyage for an outfit that didn’t exist last year.

“They are a new team and they are an unknown quantity to us,” said captain Leo Cullen this week. “They have a new coach [Christian Gajan] I’ve never come across before. They’ve got some players similar to what was in Aironi to before and have made a few additions. They’re a bit better but it was tough for them, the situation they found themselves in at the start of the year, kind of getting muddled together. It’s very hard to form an identity overnight, but they are getting better every week.

“You saw Italy were a pretty kickable kick from getting a draw against Australia [last weekend] and you hear the All Blacks guys saying Italy was the most physically demanding game they’d faced in a while.”

Cullen went on to talk about how the Italians like to “start smashing into things” which, if it proves to be the case, will offer Michael Bent a memorable introduction to life with Leinster after his stints off the bench for Ireland. Bent’s performance, his first from the off in Ireland, will be tracked closely given Ireland’s perennial shortfall of options at tighthead and the fact he is the first man since Brian O’Driscoll made his international bow against Australia in 1999 to play for Ireland before his province. Nor will the Kiwi be the only tighthead turning heads at the RDS. Former Munster front row, Dave Ryan will again be packing down from the start for the Italian outfit. Like Richardt Strauss, Ryan is aiming to represent his new home once he completes a three-year residency stint.

LEINSTER: I Nacewa; A Conway, G D’Arcy, A Goodman, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, S Cronin, M Bent; L Cullen, D Browne; K McLaughlin, R Ruddock, S O’Brien.

Replacements: A Dundon, C Healy, M Ross, T Denton, J Murphy, I Boss, I Madigan, F Carr.

ZEBRE: R Trevisan; L Sarto, G Garcia, M Pratichetti, S Sinoti; D Halangahu, T Tebaldi; M Aguiero, C Festuccia, D Ryan; Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Cattina, M Bergamasco, F Cristiano.

Referee: A McMenenmy (SRU).

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