Leinster can expect another serious test from Bath
English visitors remain full of intent after last week’s narrow defeat at the Rec
Leinster’s Garry Ringrose and Ed Byrne during Friday’s captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
It doesn’t necessarily follow that away wins are the precursor to a routine home win a week later in these pivotal pool double-headers, and a couple of factors will have spread unease amongst Leinster’s army of expectant supporters in the last 24 hours.
Firstly there’s a weather forecast of biblical proportions and then Todd Blackadder was true to his word that Bath would arrive here locked and fully loaded.
Blackadder has made only two changes, one of which is enforced due to Joe Cokanasiga being ruled out. In his stead, Cooper Vuna starts on the wing, while Jacques van Rooyen is called in at loosehead.
Following on from the latest diktat to afford more leeway toward the defending ‘jackals’ over the ball, Underhill especially and Louw did untold damage in winning turnovers and denying Leinster the chance to build multiple phases last week. This would, assuredly, have been central to Girvan Dempsey’s insider information as well.
Of the three changes Cullen has made, one is also enforced, with Rob Kearney ruled out due to an unspecified ‘knock’. Jordan Larmour switches to fullback and Adam Byrne is recalled for his first Champions Cup match since the win over Montpellier in last season’s pool opener 14 months ago.
Rory O’Loughlin is preferred to Noel Reid at inside centre for his first Champions Cup start since January 2017. More of an outside centre cum occasional winger, he’s never previously started a game at inside centre for Leinster.
However, Cullen pointed out that O’Loughlin had lengthy stints (40 and 61 minutes) there as a replacement for Isa Nacewa in last May’s Pro14 semi-final and final.
Helpfully, he will have Jonathan Sexton on his inside after the Leinster captain overcame the calf strain he picked up toward the end of last week’s 17-10 win. And, of course, he’ll have the key defensive figure of the in-form Garry Ringrose to his outside.
First and foremost, Leinster will need to improve their carries into the collision, to give themselves a better chance of making the clear-out, and be more alert in identifying the threat of Underhill and Louw.
Apparently the forecast suggests you wouldn’t put the cat out on Saturday, although there is a chance that the heavy rain could relent by kick-off or thereabouts. Furthermore, the Aviva Stadium pitch is likely to hold up better than the Rec.
Akin to the double-header with Exeter last season, last week was another reminder that Leinster’s double success was founded on an ability to tailor their game on a given day compared to the all-singing, all-dancing team that reached two semi-finals two seasons ago.
“We’re trying to add different strings to the game all the time,” said Cullen yesterday. “We need to understand that sometimes you need to roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done on any given day. It’s not our intention.
“We go out to play with attacking intent all the time but even in the game last year, it was both teams going fully at it. It was an unbelievably physical affair. That’s what people want to come and see as well.”
Despite there only being three tries against Exeter here last year, Cullen said “it was a pretty enthralling game”.
“That’s what we expect again, we expect the same from Bath. We know that they are under a different type of pressure themselves and we saw how that manifested itself in last week’s performance again and we expect something very, very similar.”
This pool has already featured a few unexpected twists and turns, and it mightn’t be finished yet.
Cullen has painted a worst-case scenario after this weekend of Bath drawing level with Leinster on ten points, and Toulouse on 17 points. Certainly, a defeat here would all but extinguish Leinster’s hopes of a home quarter-final and leave their hold on the trophy very precarious indeed.
Against that, this offers the chance for Leinster to either overtake Toulouse or, more likely, cement their second place standing behind Toulouse and set up a potentially mouth-watering pool decider between the two four-time champions at the RDS.
This could well be more of an armwrestle than the odds suggest, given Bath’s clear intent and that ominous weather forecast.
Even so, it will be a surprise if Leinster’s brains trust don’t put to rights some of the flaws from last week. Specifically they’ll surely generate more intensity in their carries through Conan, Leavy, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and James Ryan, and hence in their clear-outs as well.
With Sexton pulling the strings, there’s a potent-looking mix to that backline as well and, as ten wins in a row suggest, come hail, rain or shine, this is Leinster’s home from home.
LEINSTER: Jordan Larmour; Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Rory O’Loughlin, James Lowe; Jonathan Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Rhys Ruddock, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Noel Reid.
BATH: Ruaridh McConnochie; Semesa Rokoduguni, Jackson Willison, Jamie Roberts, Cooper Vuna; James Wilson, Will Chudley; Jacques van Rooyen, Tom Dunn, Henry Thomas, Dave Attwood, Charlie Ewels (capt), Tom Ellis, Sam Underhill, Francois Louw. Replacements: Jack Walker, Nathan Catt, Max Lahiff, Elliott Stooke, Matt Garvey, Kahn Fotuali’i, Alex Davies, Darren Atkins.
Referee: Pascal Gaüzère (France)
Results so far: Leinster – W 52-3 (h) v Wasps, L 27-28 v Toulouse, W 17-10 v Bath (a). Bath – L 20-22 v Toulouse (h), D 35-35 v Wasps (a), L 10-17 v Leinster (h).
Overall head to head: Played 10, Leinster 8 wins, Bath 2 wins.
Leading points scorers: Leinster – Johnny Sexton 25. Bath – Freddie Burns 25.
Leading try scorers: Leinster: Sean Cronin 3, James Lowe, Jordan Larmour, Luke McGrath 2 each. Bath: 8 players on 1 each.
Betting (Paddy Power): 1/25 Leinster, 45/1 Draw, 13/1 Bath. Handicap odds (Bath + 21pts) 10/11 Leinster, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Bath.
Forecast: Leinster to win.