Anxious Leinster begin their defence with tricky opener
Leinster v Exeter Chiefs:SO IT begins, Leinster’s defence of their back-to-back European crowns and with it their pursuit of an historic three-in-a-row. With that the status of greatness would be underlined but even more relevantly, there would be a fourth star on their jerseys next season, thereby enabling them to rub shoulders with Toulouse in uber elite company.
Yet with the memory of the Connacht mauling still vivid – serial winners are the most discommoded by such a defeat – there is a more palpable feeling of apprehension and even of dented self-belief both within and around their camp, despite, for the third year running, a restorative win over old foes Munster. That’s always good for the Leinster soul, but the bodies are also still not fully restored, with Rob Kearney and Gordon D’Arcy failing to make the cut for this opener.
Kearney reportedly trained well on Thursday but pulled up sore afterwards, so Ian Madigan continues at fullback and Fergus McFadden at inside centre in an unchanged backline. There are only two changes up front, with Cian Healy recalled to the starting line-up for his 100th Leinster appearance, as is fit-again captain Leo Cullen in place of Devin Toner.
At least Kevin McLaughlin, Isa Nacewa and Brian O’Driscoll have all, as expected, recovered from last week’s knocks, while Isaac Boss, absent since the opening weekend of the season, is restored to a bench with an odd-looking 6-2 split. And at least this means that having been largely forced into making an average of nine changes per game over their previous five outings, Joe Schmidt makes only those two aforementioned changes from the team which performed so impressively for the first hour against Munster.
Under the astute guidance of Rob Baxter, the Chiefs have not only defied expectations by cementing their Premiership place and by qualifying for the Heineken Cup, they arrive buoyed by last week’s 42-28 dissection of the English champions; the kind of performance which epitomises their hard-running but wide and livewire brand of high-tempo, supremely well-coached rugby.
They are also ultra-fit, statistically proven to be one of the strongest in last season’s Premiership in terms of tries scored in the last quarter, and last week illustrated this point again with a brace of tries by New Zealand centre Jason Shoemark and replacement Sireli Naqelevuki to complete their five-try rout of Quins.
Their backline also features the Ulster pair of outhalf points machine Gareth Steenson and winger Ian Whitten. Australian lock Dean Mumm has given them real ballast up front judging by last week’s effort, although for the occasion that’s in it Baxter has restored his captain and younger Bull, Tom Hayes, whilst James Scaysbrook is also back at openside flanker in place of the injured Ben White. Mumm reverts to the bench where Chris Whitehead returns at the expense of Neil Clark.
“They’re a good team, they are,” admitted Brian O’Driscoll during the week. “A very good team. And they’re very much that – a team. They mightn’t have that many galacticos but they have a real team mentality and they play very hard for one another. They’re technically very good, very efficient, and they’re a hard team to beat.”
All of which is undoubtedly true, for the pressure to win at home is very much on Leinster and according to O’Driscoll, and while training was “far superior” in the week of the Munster game, they are still a little rattled by the memory of that Connacht thrashing. “You don’t go from conceding a bonus point to beating one of the other provinces and thinking everything’s perfect,” said O’Driscoll.
LEINSTER: I Madigan; A Conway, B ODriscoll, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Browne, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, J Hagan, D Toner, L Auvaa, J Murphy, I Boss, F Carr.
EXETER CHIEFS: L Arscott; I Whitten, P Dollman, J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson, H Thomas, B Sturgess, S Alcott, C Rimmer, T Hayes (capt), J Hanks, T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Replacements: C Whitehead, C Budgen, B Moon, A Muldowney, D Mumm, W Chudley, I Mieres, S Naqelevuki.
Referee: Pascal Gauzere(FFR).
Forecast: Leinster to win.