Leinster in the right mind for Castres onslaught
Despite injuries, home side are ready for a real Heineken Cup battle
Brendan Macken stepped up to the plate against the Ospreys and will need to do so today once more against Castres. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
There was a worrying lack of concern about Castres at this week’s Leinster media briefings. Not that Matt O’Connor would be foolish enough to ignore a team that thoroughly deserved to beat the mighty Toulon in last season’s Top 14 final. And to linger on their current domestic form – they lie ninth with four wins and five defeats – would be equally dangerous.
The focus was mainly on Leinster’s lengthy infirmary list. Leaders all, in years gone by to be entering round two of Europe, even in Dublin, without names like O’Driscoll, Cullen, Jennings, Strauss, Tuqiri, Kirchner and, perhaps most worrying of all, Mike Ross would leave any squad on the brink of crisis.
And yet the three-time European champions appear their usual bullish, expressive selves. The encouraging rupturing of a Lions-laden Ospreys pack puts the collective mindset at ease. Even the loss of Ross so early with a torn hamstring was allayed by Marty Moore – aka “the baby calf” – rolling into the fray and locking the scrum.
Lote Tuqiri and especially Zane Kirchner were supposed to be in situ by now. But they aren’t. At least concerns about Brendan Macken filling his fellow Blackrock old boy’s boots were somewhat allayed in Swansea. The 22-year-old played well but now needs to bring that size of his to the midfield collisions.
“Brendan’s been in the group a long time and the reality was Brian and Lote were broken so there was an opportunity to step up to the plate,” said O’Connor. “I think he ticked all the boxes. Circumstances have led us to a situation where there is an opportunity at 13 for him. The challenge is there for him to take it.”
It’s funny how so many young Irish players have broken through at Leinster going back even to Gordon D’Arcy in 2004, Jonathan Sexton in 2009 or even Cian Healy.
Macken was ably supported at the Liberty Stadium by those inside and outside him. D’Arcy is clearly warmed up to his 15th campaign, Fergus McFadden doesn’t seem to have a bad game anymore and Dave Kearney is doing enough to keep Luke Fitzgerald at bay.
The concern is up front. Not that Leinster have any obvious weakness, it’s just that Castres look so powerful.
“Everyone knows they won the league last season beating Clermont and Toulon back-to-back,” said O’Connor. “The front five is a huge focus for the French guys and I’m sure they are coming here to get a result up front.”
List off all the nations that produce concrete rugby players and they are on show this afternoon. The frontrow assault will be a third Georgian, Romanian and French with some Maori and Tongan blood to come in.
This may well be the season Richie Gray becomes a world-class lock – his out of touch duel with Devin Toner could prove crucial – while Uruguayan Rodrigo Capo Ortega is some specimen. One from an all South African backrow will eventually make way for the outstanding Ibrahim Diarra.
Add in the halfback duo of Remi Tales and Rory Kockott and the 14 point handicap looks awfully generous.
So, an enormous eight, a drop goal expert in Tales and Kockott’s ability off the tee leaves little margin for error.
No surprise then that O’Connor has stuck with Isaac Boss and Jimmy Gopperth.
Gopperth proved he is more than a Kiwi journeyman last weekend with his kicking and tackling so Ian Madigan was never going to be recalled.
“It wasn’t a matter of being vindicated or relieved or anything else,” O’Connor said of the selection. “That’s what we thought as a group was the best result (sic) for us. Hindsight will tell you it wasn’t too bad.”
That call gets tested again today. Madigan and Eoin Reddan will most likely be sprung at some point, especially if Leinster are seeking to speed up the game.
Their famed defensive structure will also be sternly probed at close quarters. But the backrow should batter down the multinational resistance.
Providing the scrum and lineout aren’t badly damaged it shouldn’t be a too much of a problem for Messrs O’Brien, Heaslip, McLaughlin, Healy and Cronin to win the penalties for Gopperth to edge matters.