Leinster can take another French scalp but Stade Francais will be no pushovers
O’Driscoll’s back injury rules him out of Amlin final as he decides to play another year
A comparatively weary and battle-scarred Leinster have sought to rejig and refresh their resources for the first half of a putative double this evening, while still acutely mindful of a talented, rested and focused opposition who are seeking the first European trophy in their club’s history.
This being their third season running of back-to-back finals, Joe Schmidt has made seven changes from the hugely attritional league semi-final win over Glasgow six days ago. Brian O’Driscoll hasn’t recovered from his back complaint and joins Gordon D’Arcy on the casualty list, while Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Leo Cullen, Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings, with McLaughlin not even making the bench after a particularly heavy toll in recently.
“I think he (McLaughlin) has done a super job for us, and Shane Jennings,” explained Schmidt. “It is just that the two have massive numbers both in game time and in the number of collisions they were involved in last week.
“We just felt that it was a good idea to keep everyone competitive within the squad and, at the same time, to be able to put a bit of freshness into the game. To play three play-off games at this time of the year, it is one of the risks that we try to do it with the same team over three weeks.”
Schmidt has called up Andrew Conway, Ian Madigan, Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock and Seán O’Brien, who are hardly dummies. “I don’t think that they are risks or unwarranted in the context of the match,” said the coach.
The shuffling also probably enhances their chances of a double, yet as banana skins go this now looks no less slippery. Not alone are Stade wildly unpredictable after another disruptive, roller-coaster season, the Amlin Challenge Cup is something of a bonus competition, and accordingly appears to have induced a freer mindset.
The six knock-out games have averaged exactly 60 points and 6.5 tries per match, with Stade contributing almost as handsomely as Leinster to this whackiness, notably in their 36-20 win away to Bath in the quarters, along with a degree of away-day grit in a 25-22 semi-final win at Perpignan, which has not always been in evidence on their travels.
Unsurprisingly, their semi-final starting team, having been rested against Biarritz a fortnight ago, are retained en bloc, with potent Fijian winger Waisea Nayacalevu back on the bench after injury. They are potentially far more dangerous than the ageing, unfit Biarritz team which Leinster put to the sword three weeks ago.
Stade have a heavyweight scrum and accurate lineout, and we can be fairly sure that the athletic, hard-working American lock Scott Lavala will be keener than ever to impress after failing to make the cut in a provincial set-up after four years in Trinity.
Likewise, Sergio Parisse is a big-game player who, in tandem with scrumhalf Julien Dupuy, gives them experienced leadership. Their midfield is defensively robust if not especially creative, while in again accommodating the huge goalkicking of Jerome Porical, the brilliant Hugo Bonneval is on the wing. As the son of French legend Eric, the 22-year-old epitomises French flair with his pace, tricky footwork and eye for a gap or the try line.
One imagines they have a collective, us-against-the-world mentality for this game. Coach Christiophe Laussucq, who along with forwards coach David Auradou is being replaced at the end of the season and is bound for Mont-de-Marsan, maintains this was not about atonement for another decidedly so-so season.
‘It’s a challenge’
“We have a lot of young players who have come through the academy and for them it’s going to be possible to show what they can do, and for all of us let’s think that we can do something quite historical for our club.”
They will have maybe drawn a little more belief from Leinster’s teamsheet. “We were waiting for Brian O’Driscoll. We are not too unhappy that he is not there but we know not to underestimate this Leinster team. We know their qualities, they are playing at home and we know it’s a bloody good team. We know it’s going to be tough and complicated.”
If Stade obtain a foothold in this game, they will grow in belief. They may not want to lose a fourth European final, but in a sense they can afford to swing from the hip. Yet Leinster have a fairly strong bench to call upon and are at home, even if their paltry allocation may or may not dilute that factor.
There is silverware on offer, and one only has to reflect upon Biarritz’s wild celebrations a year ago after this final.
Leinster could be holders of both European trophies, if only for a day, and while Stade won at Donnybrook 14 seasons ago, eight French sides have since come to the RDS and Leinster have beaten them all.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; A Conway, F McFadden, I Madigan, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Ross, Q Roux, D Toner, R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy, J Hagan, L Cullen, S Jennings, J Cooney, A Goodman, D Kearney.
STADE FRANCAIS : J Porical; J Sinzelle, G Doumayrou, P Williams, H Bonneval; J Plisson, J Dupuy; A De Malmanche, L Sempere, R Slimani, S Lavalla, G Mostert, D Lyons, P Rabadan, S Parisse (capt). Replacements: R Bonfils, S Wright, J Becasseau, A van Zyl, L Tomiki, W Nayacalevu, J Arias, P Warwick.
Referee: N Owens (Wales).
Forecast: Leinster to win.