Leinster victory looks a journey slightly out of reach
Province’s entire pack is changed from the Northampton Saints defeat
Leinster’s Brian O’Driscoll in action against Northampton Saints in their Heineken Cup clash at the Aviva Stadium last weekend. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Break time for some; for others the grind continues. Most internationals go into hibernation as Six Nations preparations commence but Brian O’Driscoll and Luke Fitzgerald need games so they will get 80 minutes to sharpen their match fitness.
Both have already shown all too brief glimpses of their magic this season. Fitzgerald, in particular, danced past and sped away from George North last weekend.
O’Driscoll’s last waltz has already included some fine new variations; the under-the-legs back-flick pass, a tasty intercept, the usual pick and drives around rucks and some textbook turnovers. And hopefully the last concussion of his career. But probably not.
Ian Madigan is another released by the Irish management tonight. As is Kevin McLaughlin, the main victim of November’s catch 22, when he lost his Leinster spot while chasing Ireland caps.
The entire pack is changed from the Northampton defeat. It can be argued that Leinster under-performed last Saturday night but more accurately they were outfought.
Some positions are being seriously stretched. Particularly hooker and loosehead prop, where Jack McGrath’s concussion and Cian Healy’s surgery opens the door for Michael Bent.
Parachuted into the Ireland side before Leinster over a year ago, the Kiwi has been unable to prove himself anything more than a New Zealand provincial level tighthead. Which he is. Or was. But an ability to shift across the scrum keeps Jack O’Connell down for a while yet.
James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong and O’Connell are the frontrow cover on the bench. None of them are hookers by trade but Tracy has been employed there of late. Still no word on Richardt Strauss’ temporary replacement.
It’s also interesting to see Tom Denton selected ahead of Quinn Roux to partner Leo Cullen in the secondrow. Roux, like Bent, has yet to make the impact of previous foreigners recruited by Leinster. Stanley Wright and Nathan Hines cast imposing shadows.
They do have time but tonight’s an opportunity not to be missed. Same can be said about Noel Reid, getting to play inside O’Driscoll, while Zane Kirchner is the type of cover at fullback that Leinster have grown accustomed to over the years.
Edinburgh are supposed to be easy meat. So Munster may have presumed back in October or Gloucester, to their European detriment, last weekend.
Former Ulster coach Alan Solomons has actually strengthened his team tonight as Greig Laidlaw returns at scrumhalf to captain the side. Nick De Luca comes into the midfield alongside Ben Atiga and marauding number eight David Denton will need to be back-sided at the earliest opportunity.
Izak van der Westhuizen’s groin strain sees Ollie Atkins start at lock. “Rotation is always very important and, with so many big games in such a short space of time, it becomes absolutely vital,” said Solomons, understandably exuding an air of confidence after his depleted team won at Kingsholm.
“We have begun to use the squad more effectively and are now able to bring fresh players back in for this game, which I think is a positive for the team.
“These players are freshened up and are really keen to play. They obviously would have loved to have been part of Sunday’s win, but now they have a fantastic opportunity to contribute in a big game for us.
“We appreciate that Leinster are one of, if not the top side in Europe, so it presents a massive challenge to which we are really looking forward.”
For his counterpart Matt O’Connor this match is significant. Leinster and back-to-back defeats don’t really happen. Not since Clermont achieved as much last December. But this selection is a risk by O’Connor.
Anything is possible with Leinster these days, especially with Madigan and O’Driscoll on show, but victory on this journey looks slightly out of reach.