Leinster must aspire to reach higher ground

 

RUGBY:PRE-MATCH conjecture had been enlivened by the uncertainty as to who would wear the respective number 10 jerseys in today’s contest. Jonathan Sexton has proved his fitness following last weekend’s second-half cameo against Munster but the French visitors travel without Juan Martin Hernandez and Jonathan Wisniewski, both of whom are injured.

Racing coach Pierre Berbizier has asked 32-year-old former Toulouse, Perpignan and Stade Français scrumhalf Jerome Fillol to fill that pivotal role. The alternative would have been to switch Springbok Francois Steyn but in the continuing absence of French international wing Benjamin Fall, it might have left the Top 14 league leaders a little vulnerable to the high ball.

Steyn possesses a thunderous boot, capable of driving opponents back 60 or 70 metres at a time while he’s also quick to take on long-range drop-goal opportunities. If Leinster’s kicking game is ill-directed the South African will punish.

Fillol maintains a proud French tradition of players who can play in either halfback position – his preference, though, would be scrumhalf. It’s likely he would mix and match with Martin Durand throughout the game. At 5ft 8in, Fillol is going to be a target for the Leinster ball-carriers. Albert Vulivuli is essentially a wing but will partner Italian international Andrea Masi in midfield.

The visitors have suffered less disruption up front in a pack that will be led by captain Lionel Nallet and includes the prodigious carrying ability of Sebastien Chabal and Jone Qovu Nailiko.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has elected to pair Sexton and Eoin Reddan at halfback, with Isa Nacewa moving to the right wing. Shane Horgan begins on the bench. While Leo Cullen is edging every closer to full fitness, throwing him into a contest of this intensity for a first game of the season would have been a gamble.

Devin Toner, following an impressively mature display last week, is retained in the secondrow, while Argentine Mariano Galarza is among the replacements. Heinke van der Merwe starts at loosehead prop, Shane Jennings returns at openside in a team once again led by Jamie Heaslip.

While Leinster will gave away a few inches in height in the battle of the backrows, they’ll certainly have an edge in terms of mobility and that may offer a clue to the type of game they’ll look to play: retaining possession and looking to utilise the full width of the pitch. They’ll want to ensure a high tempo, based on quick ruck ball to maximise the well documented ability of the three-quarter line and fullback Rob Kearney.

The Parisians travel to Dublin though without a couple of pivotal players. Leinster’s return to form at the Aviva stadium was timely and provided they maintain that upward curve should make this season’s European bow a winning one.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; I Nacewa, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; N Hines, D Toner; S O’Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, S Shawe, M Galarza, D Ryan, I Boss, F McFadden, S Horgan.

RACING METRO-92: F Steyn; S Bobo, A Vulivuli, A Masi, J Saubade; J Fillol, M Durand; A Lo Cicero, B Noirot, JP Orlandi; L Nallet (capt), J Qovu Nailiko; J Leo’o, J Cronje, S Chabal. Replacements: C Festuccia, S Zimmerman, J Brugnaut, S Dellape, M Loree, M Bergamasco, R Vaquin, A Batut.

Referee: David Pearson (England).

Previous meetings: none. Odds: Leinster 2/9, draw 25/1, Racing Metro 3/1. Handicap: Leinster (-9) 10/11, draw 22/1, Racing Metro (+9) 10/11.