Leinster need to ignore the big picture
Leinster stand at the crossroads of this season’s Heineken Cup looking for directions. To some degree, their pathway will be chosen for them based on events at Sandy Park and one or two other European venues over the weekend.
They are used to determining their own route in previous years, but a pool campaign pockmarked by injuries to key personnel and an unsympathetic bounce here and there has allowed Clermont Auvergne to usurp the champions at the van of the procession to the knock-out stages of the tournament.
This evening the Irish province will concentrate on first winning a game of rugby and then trying to embellish that achievement with a four-try bonus point. The focus must be insular and narrow for most of the 80 minutes.
They can not afford to be distracted by the bigger picture against an Exeter Chiefs team that will guarantee integrity of commitment to defending their home patch.
Exeter are fiercely proud of their roots and standing in the Devon community.
The Chiefs will be looking for a prized scalp, a fact to which their highly regarded coach Rob Baxter alluded: “It would be a fantastic achievement if we could finish with a win, primarily because of the pressure Leinster are under, pressure to come here and win and chase a bonus point.
“They will be coming here full-on, which is good for us, and the kind of scenario we want to play in.”
His Leinster counterpart Joe Schmidt knows that his team can’t afford to be too gung-ho. “I think it’s really important for us to get the result.
“During the game there will be a lot of pressure on Leo (Cullen) to make the right decisions. There may come a time when we’re just looking for the result – because if we lose this game, 15 or 16 points takes you nowhere.
“If we get to 19, something bizarre could happen and qualify us. And we could get an Amlin with a win; that’s five points in the European seedings there, and maybe qualify another Irish team. There are a lot of variables and the obvious one is uppermost for us.
“But there are secondary ones which we have to make sure of, and that means the result comes first. If Exeter saw us talking about five points all the time, they’d be rubbing their hands at it.
“Because they’re too strong a team in front of their home crowd for us to be presumptuous about chasing bonus points when we don’t have the big four that counts.”
Exeter came within a whisker of causing one of the biggest Heineken Cup shocks of recent times when the sides met in the opening pool game at the RDS.
That day the English club proved to be a real nuisance at the breakdown, slowing down ball and counter-rucking aggressively.
Schmidt admitted: “You have got to work very hard against this team to get them because they look after the ball really well. Teams that play with that much width can sometimes get exposed, but they are very well organised and they anticipate play well.
“They have played a lot together and come up through the Championship and Premiership. A lot of the players have stayed consistent over a period of time and they really gel incredibly well as a unit.”
The Chiefs are without the injured Phil Dollman and the excellent Argentine Gonzalo Camacho wing while scrumhalf Haydn Thomas, who missed last week’s defeat to Clermont, is still an absentee.
Into the side come giant Fijian Sireli Naqelevuki and former Ulster player Ian Whitten. They possess an excellent backrow in James Scaysbrook, Richard Baxter and Tom Johson, a very able leader in Tom Hayes and, in fullback Luke Arscott, a premium grade attacking threat.
Leinster welcome back Brian O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan, Richardt Strauss and Kevin McLaughlin to the starting team. Although snow has blanketed large swathes of Britain – two flights to Bristol were cancelled – Exeter, while bitterly cold, has been assailed only by rain. The visitors will be hoping for a dry day, albeit that the pitch will be heavy.
The Chiefs know that the best way to neuter Leinster is disrupt their set-piece, win the collisions and dominate the breakdown. Conversely, the Irish province will be looking for quick ball and precision in their patterns.
The Leinster pack must win their duel to claim victory; the backs may decide by how much. Patience might be a virtue, discipline too because it’s been an Achilles’ heel.
Leinster must learn to manage referee Romain Poite.
The visitors need clarity of purpose and execution and if they can satisfy those two requirements then they have a chance.
EXETER CHIEFS: L Arscott; I Whitten, S Naqelevuki, J Shoemark, M Jess; G Steenson, K Barrett; B Moon, N Clark, H Tui; T Hayes (capt), D Mumm; T Johnson, J Scaysbrook, R Baxter. Replacements: J Yeandle, C Rimmer, C Mitchell, J Hanks, B White, W Chudley, I Mieres, N Sestaret.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; K McLaughlin, S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Replacements: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, M Bent, R Ruddock, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, F McFadden.
Referee: Romain Poite (France).
Verdict: Leinster to win.