Wasps to feel the sting as Leinster prepare to up ante
Adams Park set to have its biggest crowd of the season
Fergus McFadden will start against Wasps.
The Challenge Cup has never had it so good. The most star-studded line-up Europe’s secondary competition has ever had boasts 10 Heineken Cup wins between them (and all bar one have contested finals) as well as four different winners of this competition. Accordingly, this fixture sees Wasps, two-time winners of Europe’s blue riband, host three-time winners, but this first foray into Europe’s poorer relation will arguably be a bigger test of Leinster’s desire.
Two seasons ago, against a bristling young English side in the shape of Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins, Munster were a little underwhelmed by the prize of Europe’s consolation prize, and hence underperformed in losing a semi-final at home.
And whatever about being underwhelmed, Leinster are certainly a little under-powered. The absence of their first-choice 9-10-12-13 axis at home to Ulster last week, when a nine-match winning run came to an end, was acutely felt, although at least they welcome back Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden to midfield, as well as Leo Cullen and Seán O’Brien to the pack.
Regardless of slipping into this competition, as recent back-to-back European champions they remain prized scalps. “There’s been a great buzz around the club this week,” said Dai Young yesterday and Adams Park will host its biggest crowd of the season tonight.
Whereas Leinster are plotting new territory, Wasps are one of the Challenge Cup’s previous winners, and although four successive defeats have seen them slip out of the Premiership play-off picture and down to seventh domestically – one point and one place outside the automatic top six qualifiers for next season’s Heineken Cup – this is Wasps other route into the Heineken Cup next season, as well as being their only chance of silverware.
And their 2003 triumph was the prelude to a sixth major title in the shape of their first Heineken Cup 12 months later in three years of bounty under Warren Gatland.
Whatever about the prospects for another golden era, another Challenge Cup would represent nirvana after the trials and tribulations of last season. Dai Young would assuredly never have touched Wasps with the proverbial barge pole had he known of the financial difficulties he was walking into and when Wasps came within 80 minutes and one point of relegation last season, it probably meant 80 minutes from oblivion, for it’s doubtful they would have attracted any investment.
As it is, they’re awaiting further investment next season – rumoured to be from an unnamed Irish businessman – but no team has made such staggering progress across Europe’s three main leagues over the last 12 months.
They have been replenished by a small but high-quality Academy which has yielded the likes of Phil Swainton (23), Joe Launchbury (22), Sam Jones (21), Billy Vunipola (20) and Elliot Daly (20), while Young has dipped into the Welsh market to sign abrasive hooker T Rhys Thomas and veteran outhalf Stephen Jones, who will retire at the end of the season.
Drops to bench
The latter drops to the bench to accommodate the return of compatriot Nicky Robinson, their leading scorer in this competition, with Young also recalling Thomas and Tom Palmer to the tight five, while Launchbury reverts to the backrow.
Elliot, match-winner for the Saxons against the Wolfhounds in Galway last January, has pledged his long-term commitment to the club. They play a lively brand of rugby, through a big carrying backrow and look to move the ball to their pacey outside backs. Wade and Tom Varndell are the quickest wing pairing in the Premiership, and the most prolific, with 28 tries between them in both competitions, and 22 of Wasps’ 41 tries in the Premiership.
Leinster need to turn them with their kicking game. Beaten in the last minute three weeks ago at home to Northampton, and eventually overpowered by a clinical Saracens last week after taking an early 13-0 lead, Wasps had previously enjoyed a 100 per cent record at Adams Park this season. Leinster lost on their only visit here in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup six seasons ago, when torn apart by James Haskell (still sidelined with a knee injury) in the second half.
After thrashing Wasps at home two seasons later, a bonus-point defeat at Twickenham helped them top the group en route to their breakthrough Euro triumph. Joe Schmidt’s men will need to up their game considerably from last week, and particularly sharpen their defensive line speed – where D’Arcy’s return should help – as well as their breakdown work, while adding more variety to the preponderance of one-off runners against Ulster. But, provided Leinster are not underwhelmed by the lesser lights of the Amlin, it could be that losing to Ulster, coupled with Schmidt’s remedial powers, and the carrot of a home semi-final and final, will do the trick.