Leinster to prevail if 14 returnees replicate All Black heroics
Anything less than fierce will see Matt O’Connor’s side fall at Franklin’s Gardens
Matt O’Connor has been crystal clear about selection; when it comes to the big games he will pick whoever he feels will do the job for Leinster without any consideration for Ireland.
And Joe Schmidt, or anybody else for that matter, can run and jump.
It doesn’t get much bigger than taking on the rising force in English rugby on their own patch but O’Connor will have delighted his predecessor by naming an indigenous line-up.
Ruddock has earned this. The big flanker led Leinster to victories away to the Dragons and Treviso in November, producing herculean performances in both attack and defence.
Kevin McLaughlin is dropped as Shane Jennings provides cover for the backrow (Seán O’Brien would switch to blindside or number eight in the freak event of Jamie Heaslip going down).
The Madigan and Kearney calls over Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner are welcome surprises.
In fairness, Madigan kicked five out of six goals to dismiss the Scarlets last Saturday. He shifted to inside centre when Gopperth relieved Gordon D’Arcy late on but retains the 10 jersey here.
His direction of the Leinster pack will have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Then again, form doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything at Leinster. Kirchner also excelled at fullback in the RDS, putting in some jarring tackles and cleverly combining with Luke Fitzgerald.
Rob Kearney’s return wasn’t up for debate but Kirchner was actually signed as a “position-specific” winger – in the IRFU’s eyes anyway – but O’Connor was obviously pleased by what he saw of Dave Kearney in the Samoa and New Zealand games.
Maybe it was the moment he emptied Israel Dagg before springing to his feet and almost catching his big brother that shaded it.
Anyway, Leinster could almost be the Ireland side that takes the field against Scotland next February. Granted, Mike McCarthy isn’t going to remove Paul O’Connell and Eoin Reddan ahead of Conor Murray won’t happen again anytime soon. Point is, it’s a good-looking team, with genuine impact in Jack McGrath and Kirchner, while Leo Cullen’s wise old head can be used if the lineout falters.
Saints coach Jim Mallinder doesn’t have the same depth of alternatives. George Pisi’s ongoing suspension for tip- tackling Tommy Bowe means their backline can only be deemed of international quality by the presence of George North (he being Dave Kearney’s main responsibility).
They are also missing injured England loosehead prop Alex Corbisero, signed to replace Soane Tonga’uiha, so a repeat of Leinster’s intensity away to Ospreys in October and four points should be scooped up.
But wait, the elephant in the room looks angry.
2011 Heineken Cup
There’s plenty of residue from the 2011 Heineken Cup, when the Saints buckled under the anvil of Leinster’s mighty last stand. With Ben Foden injured, Northampton only have eight from then in today’s 23, to Leinster’s 13, but as a club they have not forgotten.
Calum Clark said this week they never will.
It perfectly sets the scene for a ferocious war. Leinster have to contend with a gargantuan pack led by rugby’s favourite villain Dylan Hartley.
Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes are arguably the best secondrow pairing in the competition, certainly the most agile and unforgiving.
Then there’s Tom Wood, O’Brien’s chief rival to be labelled the Northern Hemisphere’s best flanker.
And they are at home. Franklin’s Gardens is becoming comparable to Welford Road, Marcel Michelin and Thomond Park when it comes to horrendously tough places to go and win. All 13,591 tickets have been sold.
The welcoming mat they usually save for the Leicester Tigers will be rolled out.
It could get nasty. It will certainly be brutal. If Cian Healy, Devin Toner and the other 12 players who featured against New Zealand can rise again to that altitude of controlled ferocity Leinster will prevail.
Anything less and a bonus point will have to do. If there is more than one malfunctioning sector, between lineout, scrum or place-kicking, Northampton will devour them.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: J Wilson; K Pisi, D Waldouck, L Burrell, G North; S Myler, L Dickson; A Waller, D Hartley (capt), S Ma’afu; S Manoa, C Lawes; T Wood, P Dowson, S Dickinson. Replacements: M Haywood, E Waller, T Mercey, C Day, C Clark, R Glynn, G Dickson, J Elliott.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; D Kearney, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: A Dundon, J McGrath, M Moore, L Cullen, S Jennings, I Boss, J Gopperth, Z Kirchner.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU).
Betting (Paddy Powers): 8/11 Northamtpon, 20/1 Draw, 6/5 Leinster. Handicap odds (Leinster +2pts) 10/11 Northampton, 20/1 10/11 Leinster.
Previous meetings: 21/5/11: Leinster 33 Northampton 22; 27/10/00: Leinster 40 Northampton 31; 21/10/00 : Northampton 8 Leinster 14.
Forecast: Leinster to win.