SQUAD ROTATION HAS become an enormous part of coaching an Irish province.
Even this week, with over 20 names unavailable through involvement with Ireland or injury, head coach Joe Schmidt has found room for three unforced changes.
In the current climate it’s as close to wielding the axe as the Kiwi can get.
“It is the period of time,” Schmidt says, “when other teams know we’re vulnerable.”
Within this turbulent spell though, there are a core group of players present who are involved throughout the season. Through the early scuffles, to the Heineken Cup and on through the international dates.
Among that group, the men for all seasons, are Shane Jennings and Isa Nacewa.
Jennings’ marginalisation from the Ireland set-up, Nacewa’s single internationally-fatal cap for Fiji have helped Leinster reap rewards in the last three regular seasons. After being taken apart in Llanelli, it’s up to senior stalwarts like these to ensure Leinster’s annual early-season blip doesn’t swell to an outright slump.
“I think we got bullied and that’s the reality of it. If you can’t step up physically that’s going to happen.” Says Jennings, who will return captaincy duties to Leo Cullen this evening.
“The guys that are selected this weekend have a huge responsibility to step up and impose themselves both in attack and defence, because that’s what we didn’t do last week.”
The experienced flanker was at pains to express how training this week has been upbeat, nothing gets a group refocused like a 45-point concession. Nacewa too looks around the squad and see no reason to worry that a trend has been spotted.
“We’re not hitting the panic button, no. We’re very disappointed at how we started last week. We did the same against Ospreys (first game of last season) and took a hard look at ourselves after that week and hopefully at the RDS we can start to build on things.”
The Aucklander added: “There were very few positives out of the game, but we’ll build on what we did. We did hold onto the ball quite well, but it’s one of the things we have to build on, shaping our attack.”
Just after six o’clock tonight, the Newport Gwent Dragons provide the opportunity for Leinster to bounce back. A side, whose position at the top of the table would have been all the more impressive had they not eased off the pedal and coasted for 40 minutes after securing a first half bonus point on Zebre’s competition debut.
“They’re definitely a team that starts their season really well. Obviously, against Zebre last week they were outstanding – a bonus point win. They’ve always caused us trouble early on too.” Says Nacewa.
“They’re a strong side and they’ve picked up a few good signings too. From what they did last week, it’s going to be a tough ask at the RDS.”
The Dragons’ comfortable win will have been tempered somewhat with Connacht’s victory in Parma last night. However, Dragons boss Darren Edwards still has some stellar grand slam-winning names, despite the injury suffered by Dan Lydiate.
Schmidt was complimentary as ever about the Welsh side; continuing his habit of naming almost the entire starting XV when asked to highlight their strengths. Edwards has retained only three pack members from the side who beat Zebre: Ian Nimmo, captain Jevon Groves and Toby Faletau.
The latter will be the weapon Leinster look to defuse first. And in front of an expectant home crowd in setting September sun, young scrum half John Cooney and Ian Madigan will be ordered to give new signing Quinn Roux some chances to show his own ball-carrying power.
The longer the summer has gone on, the more difficult it has become for the province’s coaches and players to keep their poker face on when speaking about the new second row. Roux packs a serious punch with ball in hand, but tonight is an opportunity to finally stop clicking through his YouTube showreel and see him in the flesh. It’s not long since the responses relating to the young South Africa were short – the words ‘physical presence’ always first to be trotted out – on Thursday, Nacewa was ready to unleash the dog of war.
“If Quinn does get a run this week he’ll just want to get his hands on the ball and run like the big man he is. He’s only 21 years old, but he’s training the house down and his enthusiasm to play is huge too. I think all the guys in the team are excited to see how he goes too.”
All things going well, perhaps Roux can assert himself as a regular fixture. Before Richardt Strauss qualifies for Ireland consideration Leinster may have already found another man for all seasons.