IT’S the reason his side are currently scrambling for a top four finish in the Magners League — and he didn’t enjoy it much at the time — but Joe Schmidt believes Leinster’s early season blip has been the making of his side.
The New Zealander is chasing a Heineken Cup and Magners League double in his first season in charge and a win over Ulster tomorrow would go a long way towards securing a semi-final spot in the Celtic competition to go with the European one achieved last weekend.
Leinster started their season poorly under the former Clermont backs coach, who now admits he struggled with the rigours of managing within the Ireland player welfare scheme that held his best players back in the early part of the season.
They lost three of their first four matches, including a poor display against Treviso, but October’s win over Munster kick-started his season and they’ve rarely looked back.
While Tony McGahan’s side’s consistent league form means they’re strolling into the last four, Leinster have plenty to do. But having used plenty of young players and discovered some gems like Eoin O’Malley, Dominic Ryan and Fergus McFadden, Schmidt now believes the difficult autumn will reap benefits as summer approaches.
“I think you learn more about the character of your players when times were a bit tough,” he reflected.
“I don’t know how the players felt but I certainly thought it was a bit tough then. Certainly I was being told by a lot of people that times were tough, thankfully not my employers, but another couple of weeks and that might have even appeared.
“But for me the investment in that period was worthwhile in the long term but at the same time I think I could have done a better job, I didn’t understand probably the players and the player welfare programme and how I could best balance that. It was all totally new to me and it was a very difficult beast to manage.”
Despite the difficult early days, Schmidt and his team have turned their season around and are favourites to lift the Heineken Cup.
But their European success could hinder them this weekend and training has been limited after the fallout of a titanic battle with Leicester last weekend.
Brian O’Driscoll, Isa Nacewa and Gordon D’Arcy are among the walking wounded, while Shane Jennings is expected to return when the team is named today.
And Schmidt admitted that fighting on two fronts will prove tough.
“It’s going to be carnage to a degree because we’re already beaten up and that makes you vulnerable,” he said.
“If you do become vulnerable in one competition that we might slip out of that competition therefore the depth of the squad will be tested to a degree as well.
“In the really big games if you haven’t got your top quality players playing, your international players playing, then it’s a great opportunity for younger players but it’s also a lot of pressure on a young player.
“Having said that, there were 27 different players used in the Heineken Cup so far this season and they’ve all stood up and done a pretty good job even when the more experienced players haven’t been there.
“If we lose this weekend we can’t get a home semi at all, if we lose this weekend we’ve lost control of our own destiny. If we do qualify (for the semis) it will be because of someone else slipping up, not us doing what we’ve needed to do.”
Tomorrow’s opponents, Ulster, will be hurting after last weekend’s Heineken Cup exit at the hands of Northampton, but Schmidt rates Brian McLaughlin’s charges highly.
“They have quality across the board,” he said.
“I just think we’re up for a massive battle. Both teams were Heineken Cup quarter-finalists last weekend, so if you wanted a local derby match of high quality, I think as long as both teams aren’t too battered — you might get a really good first 40 or 50. Maybe they’ll tire in the end. I hope they do anyway!”
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