Hobbled Leinster need to show some patience in the valleys
RUGBY:THE VERDICT on this current Leinster team cannot be suspended much longer and today, as they say, should tell us much. Are the holders on an irretrievable downward slope, or at any rate is their injury list simply taking too heavy a toll at this stage in the season, or is this is a temporary blip that they are about to climb out of? Come 3.30 or thereabouts in the valleys, we should have a clearer idea.
Leinster may have dodged a bullet in avoiding Clermont until December, and a Saturday lunchtime kick-off in the purpose built Parc y Scarlets doesn’t carry the same sense of occasion or menace as might the crumbling old Stradey Park under floodlights. But Simon Easterby’s team will be mindful of their rich heritage as they fight for their Heineken Cup lives today.
It will be interesting to see how Clermont fare in Exeter at tea-time, and this shark-infested pool could look a number of ways by this evening. A long way off optimum performance level at home to Exeter last week, Leinster remain some way off full strength, with Rob Kearney still sidelined alongside longer term casualties such as Seán O’Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan. They have been in ruder health.
At least Gordon D’Arcy has been declared fit, thereby equalling Shane Horgans Heineken Cup record appearance tally (87 caps) for the province, with only the Munster trio of Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes and Peter Stringer ahead of him. Fergus McFadden reverts to the wing although, somewhat surprisingly, the ripple effect does not see Isa Nacewa restored to fullback. Outstanding at fullback in the triumphant campaigns of ’08-09 and, especially, ‘10-11, Kearney’s sensational form and status as Ireland’s sole fullback justified his selection there since, but Nacewa’s counter-attacking influence on the left wing is undoubtedly less pronounced.
This will assuredly have some Leinster fans scratching their heads, but such is Joe Schmidt’s stature, that’s as far as it will go, for in Joe they trust. It also ensures a degree of continuity, though his other change is also a little surprising, Seán Cronin ahead of Richardt Strauss.
In sacrificing the latter’s nose for the breakdown, as befits an ex-flanker, this reflects the need to inject some ball-carrying in the absence of O’Brien and co. But as with most selections, there’s give and take, and this runs the risk of dulling the accuracy of Leinster’s line-out, all the more so with Damian Browne’s away-day bulk preferred to Devin Toner.
The Scarlets don’t have a juggernaut pack and with the forecast relatively promising, this could be a heavy scoring game.
With the prolific Jonathan Davies (groin) ruled out, Gareth Maule partners Scott Williams in midfield, Andy Fenby is recalled for last week’s villain Morgan Stoddard after recovering from a dead leg while up front Easterby retains the same pack.
Stoddard is free to play after his double yellow card in the opening 49-16 defeat away to Clermont. It’s worth noting that the Scarlets ultimately played 53 minutes of that match with 14 men (during which time the home side outscored the Welsh by 39-6). At 15 v 15, Clermont scored 10 points to seven.
The Scarlets will be buoyed by the memory of their 45-20 thrashing of Leinster on the League’s opening night in September, and retain 10 of that side, with the addition of Rhys Priestland at outhalf the only change in the backline.
More tellingly, Leinster retain only four of that callow side and more relevantly the Scarlets are winless in their last eight Heineken Cup meetings against Irish opposition since beating Munster 24-15 in the quarter-final at Stradey Park in March 2007.
Worryingly, the English referee Greg Garner is in charge today, having made a series of errors in Stade de France last week when failing to award Munster a fairly blatant penalty try, wrongly awarding Paul O’Connell a try before wrongly changing his mind, wrongly awarding a terrorised Racing scrum a relieving penalty and failing to notice Conor Murray tackling Karim Ghezal off the ball, to name a few. And quite how Trevor Fisher (again his TMO) saw fit to award Maxime Mechanaud his try was another moot point.
Leinster are unbeaten in their last 16 matches in the cup but plenty of good judges believe the holders have too many injuries and won’t be able to ride their luck again. But they were only a pass away from a bonus point win by the hour mark against Munster the week before, and they’ll assuredly have identified last week’s flaws, notably the lack of patience through the phases in the absence of hard gain-lining by the carriers.
If less inclined to force the passes, their patience can be rewarded.
SCARLETS: L Williams; G North, G Maule, S Williams, A Fenby; R Priestland, T Knoyle; P John, M Rees, S Lee, G Earle, J Snyman, A Shingler, J Turnbull, R McCusker (capt). Replacements: K Owens, S Hopkins, D Manu, T Vallejos-Cinalli, J Edwards, G Davies, A Thomas, M Stoddart.
LEINSTER: I Madigan; F McFadden, B ODriscoll, G DArcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Browne, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements: R Strauss, H Van der Merwe, J Hagan, D Toner, J Murphy, I Boss, A Conway, F Carr.
Referee: Greg Garner (Eng).
Betting (Paddy Power): 6/4 Scarlets, 20/1 Draw, 8/15 Leinster. Handicap odds (Scarlets + 4pts) 10/11 Scarlets, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.