O'Driscoll warms the bench but Leinster should be too hot for Scarlets
RUGBY:Brian O’Driscoll has finally, after 80 European starts spanning a 15-year professional career, been excluded from the Leinster starting XV for a major fixture.
Not dropped, mind, more a calculated risk that will be perceived as another tactical masterstroke by Joe Schmidt or, potentially, back-fire horribly.
We will be viewing some high-stakes poker at the RDS this evening. The Ireland captain has not suffered a recurrence of the ankle injury that required surgery in November but he did tighten up earlier this week, and barely trained, having playing 80 minutes on a sticky Murrayfield patch eight days ago.
Despite these minor concerns, head coach Joe Schmidt retains the option of using the man tipped to lead the Lions on tour of Australia next summer as an impact replacement, for only the fifth time in 167 games, should Leinster be in pursuit of a bonus-point try down the home straight.
It all means that in-form winger Fergus McFadden switches to his preferred outside centre role as Kiwi Andrew Goodman provides cover in case of any last-minute problems.
The benching of O’Driscoll has overshadowed the return of fellow members of the 2009 Lions backline Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald, who retain their positions having also returned from medium- to long-term injuries at Murrayfield.
Kevin McLaughlin’s troublesome shoulder rules him out this weekend but the flanker and Ireland’s naturalised hooker Richardt Strauss should return for the equally important trip to Exeter in seven days’ time.
This means Shane Jennings, excellent off the bench in Edinburgh, starts at openside, with Seán O’Brien on the blindside, Rhys Ruddock in reserve and Jordi Murphy on standby.
Another notable selection sees Isaac Boss named ahead of Eoin Reddan at scrumhalf but, again, this looks a tactical stroke by Schmidt. The increased tempo of Reddan’s delivery on the hour mark could prove crucial, and the same could be said about Ian Madigan’s arrival.
Not going with an almost fit O’Driscoll is a new departure for Leinster, especially in a moment when creativity is paramount, but this is offset by Scarlets coach Simon Easterby sending out a weakened Scarlets side.
However, just as O’Driscoll, Madigan and Reddan should add the essential spark for Leinster, Easterby can respond by unloading the heavy artillery of Matthew Rees, Samson Lee, Johan Synman and Sione Timani. Jonathan Davies is another who could come in.
Easterby does recall the genuine pace of Andy Fenby and Liam Williams to a team that was embarrassed in Belfast last week, losing 47-17 in the Pro12.
Leinster look to have more than enough firepower to win comfortably but the defence of their European crown will end in failure without a four-try bonus-point victory.
If Jonathan Sexton’s urgency can break the Scarlets in the initial stages then the reliance on O’Driscoll adding to his 56 tries in blue will become a moot point.
For tonight at least O’Driscoll remains a valuable insurance policy but the suspicion is Kearney, Isa Nacewa – providing his damaged arm hold ups – Fitzgerald and McFadden can provide the cutting edge.
Allied to Sexton’s invention to unlock a Scarlets team, Leinster look primed to complete the first of two important missions.