Aisling Crowe was at the first Leinster Rugby press conference of the season where it was all about the amount of players missing from the Leinster squad that will travel away to play the The Scarlets kick off 6:30pm Saturday.
A depleted Leinster begin their Rabodirect PRO 12 campaign away to the Llanelli Scarlets on Saturday evening and they will have to prove that their much vaunted strength in depth is not mythical. The three times European champions are shorn of 18 established stars for the trip to Wales.
The usual constraints on the Irish international players apply but it is long term injuries to household names that have hit Leinster hardest. Luminaries such as Luke Fitzgerald, Sean O’Brien, David Kearney, Eoin O’Malley and Rhys Ruddock are among the seven players who will be unavailable for some time because of injuries. It has been a trying time for Joe Schmidt and his staff and his team’s preseason form has been patchy.
“It’s not just the internationals who we are missing. We have six guys injured at the moment and they are quite long term so manouevring our way through a few pre season games has been a bit of a challenge. We have done the full spectrum of a win, loss and draw and there has been some good and bad stuff in amongst that so but there has been enough good stuff to get us a little prepared for what I think will be a tougher challenge against the Scarlets than what we’ve had in the three preseason games,” Schmidt said.
Over the last few seasons these early season league encounters have provided some of Leinster’s the chance to step out from the shadows of the international stars and grab the limelight. Dave Kearney and Ian Madigan are two who immediately spring to mind and Schmidt will give his players the opportunity to follow in their footsteps and stake a persuasive claim to be handed a starting place once the internationals return.
The competition that this brings to the side can only work to the benefit of Leinster, according to Schmidt: “It will give them some confidence for later on in the season to try to put some pressure on the international guys because on occasions the international player won’t be selected for a big game because the guy in situ has done a really good job. That’s part of the challenge that you throw out to them because there are 12 internationals so you have first shot at the jersey but it also means that the responsibility of looking after that jersey and the work you put in is at a level that keeps us competitive.”
He deflected any praise and credit for masterminding back to back Heineken Cups away from himself and onto the players and coaching staff. Schmidt knows that now Leinster are seen as the kings of European rugby keeping them at the pinnacle of the sport is going to be even more difficult than reaching the summit.
“I’ve been a happy passenger on what’s been a really good ride. I think the players have really earned everything they’ve got, they’ve really rolled their sleeves up and they’ve done that again this preseason,” but added that complacency would not be an issue. “We know that you have to go even deeper to the well each time that you attempt to achieve something because inevitably the more often you are successful the tougher it gets because people want to knock you over. I think it’s more competitive now to keep the players that we have got than it was previously because other clubs recognise that there is some value in the people that we have got.”
Although he took three weeks off to travel home to New Zealand, Leinster were never far from his thoughts. He was in constant touch with base about player signings, fitness, conditioning and most importantly the medical updates on the province’s injury victims.
Leinster have recruited over the summer and former Leeds lock Tom Denton has been impressing the coaches in Clonskeagh. “It looks like Tom Denton has been fitting in well, he’s a good bloke and he’s really working hard so we are pretty happy with the way Tom has been going so far.”
Saturday’s match is the first of four clashes between the European champions and the Scarlets this season as they have been drawn in the same Heineken Cup pool. The Welsh side will pose a stiff challenge for Leinster and Schmidt is not looking beyond this game and not taking anything for granted.
“What’s in it is four points in the Pro 12 and it is such a competitive competition, I think particularly the Scottish teams have recruited pretty strongly in the off season, and we know that our fellow Irish teams are always super competitive so for us it’s about that four points first and foremost The Heineken Cup is too far away to gauge anything I think it is going to be really tough. The Scarlets have got a bit of continuity with some of the internationals back so it will be a pretty formidable game,” he added.