Leinster one win away from a substantial windfall
Victory against Castres will secure a lucrative home quarter-final for Leo Cullen’s side
Castres’ Antoine Dupont is tackled by Jamie Heaslip of Leinster during the game at the RDS. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Castres Olympique v Leinster Rugby (Kick off: 8.45pm local time, 7.45 Irish, live Sky Sports).
The hard work has been done, yet this is the bigger deal.
Having already qualified for the knock-out stages, a win tonight would ensure Leinster of a lucrative and advantageous home quarter-final.
A quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium would be worth the guts of €1 million, of which €600,000-€700,00 would go to Leinster’s coffers, while history has shown us that home sides have won more than 75 per cent of quarter-finals in the last 20 seasons.
Asked if the Leinster CEO Mick Dawson had impressed upon him the, eh, benefits of a home quarter-final, Cullen laughed and admitted: “I think we’re reasonably aware. Yes.”
Furthermore, there is a significant carrot in achieving a top- or second-placed ranking going into the quarter-finals, as not alone does it mean playing one of the three best runners-up, but has the potential to yield a home country semi-final as well, whereas finishing third or fourth would mean an away semi-final regardless of the quarter-final results.
Currently ranked first, a victory of any hue ought to ensure a top-two ranking given Leinster have the healthiest points differential, while a bonus point would make that certain.
Thus, victory is all that matters really, and to that end Cullen has made just three changes from the side that routed Montpellier. Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss have been promoted in the front row while Ross Molony replaces the suspended Hayden Triggs.
More significant on occasions such as these is the French club’s selection.
As ever with Castres, they have a potent scrum, and as ever with a French team at home, if their scrum achieves an early rumble or two, home team and crowd alike immediately buy into the game. It can almost be seismic.
“They gave it to Northampton at the weekend, they’ve been dangerous,” said Cullen in reference to the Castres scrum. But they’ve a few more strings to their bow this season even compared to last season.
“We want to be able to play a high-paced game and be able to impose our game, but we need to have the accuracy as well when we have the ball because they’re very comfortable without structure.”
“David Smith is one of the most dangerous backs playing in the Top 14 over the last four or five years, more so with Toulon and since he’s gone to Castres as well. And [Benjamin] Urdapilleta at No 10 is again another really dangerous player, the two centres [Robert Thomas] Ebersohn and [Thomas] Cambezou are dangerous players, [Geoffrey] Palis got named in the French squad as well so he’s been going really, really well for them.”
All of this was before Castres named their team. While they’ve made nine changes from the starting team which lost 29-21 last week, it’s an intriguing mix of seasoned pros, be it nominal first-choices or back-ups. It’s certainly not their espoirs.
Of those Cullen name-checked, the speedy 20-year-old Dupont is one of the latest new wave of young scrumhalves cutting a swathe in the Top 14, and is bound for Toulouse next season. Like Kockott, Ebersohn and Palis, their only player in France’s Six Nations squad, are not involved either, but Urdapilleta, their first-choice outhalf, is named in a strong enough bench, as is Cambezou.
“It is [achieving] that mix of just being accurate when we get the ball so we don’t give them life and energy into the game,” said Cullen with regard to Leinster’s performance. “When they get on a roll, they are a dangerous team to stop. They’ve scored a lot of points, especially at home.”
Indeed, only La Rochelle – the surprise packets of the Top 14 in second place – have won at the Stade Pierre Antoine this season, where Castres have won their last eight games at home, including Northampton (41-7) and Montpellier (29-23), while averaging over 36 points.
All in all, Leinster look better able to cope with Castres than was the case on their opening trek in round two to Montpellier, but then again, as Cullen observed, the conditions and the oppositions will be markedly different.
“It has been cold all week over there with clear days and minus temperatures at night. The temperature has dropped as low as minus eight. The days have been warmer. The game is late, 8.45 local kick-off time,” said Cullen in contrasting this with the wet, mucky day they encountered the Montepellier juggernaut.
“The threats are different. But, the way we go about playing is still trying to impose our game,” said Cullen.
Stand firm in the scrums, let Devin Toner control the lineout, get their backrow and Robbie Henshaw rumbling, control possession and let Johnny Sexton do his thing, and Leinster should be alright. It would be an acute disappointment for them – and Mr Dawson, if they didn’t.
CASTRES: P Berard; J Caminati, A Taumoepeau, F Vialelle, D Smith; J Dumora, A Dupont; A Tichit, B Mach, D Kotze, V Moreaux, R Capo Ortega (c), Y Caballero, A Bias, S Mafi. Replacements: J Jenneker, M Lazar, D Tussac, L Jacquet, A Jelonch, J Seron, B Urdapilleta, T Combezou.
LEINSTER: I Nacewa (c); A Byrne, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, R O’Loughlin; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, R Strauss, T Furlong, R Molony, D Toner, J Conan, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Replacements: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Bent, M McCarthy, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, R Byrne, R Kearney.
Referee: Greg Garner (England).
Head-to-head: Played 7, Castres 1 win, Leinster 6 wins.
Leading try scorers: Castres – Alexandre Bias 3. Leinster – Isa Nacewa 6, Adam Byrn,e Jack Conan, Sean Cronin 3 each.
Leading points scorers: Castres – Benjamin Urdapilleta 36. Leinster – Isa Nacewa 75.
Betting (Paddy Power): 4/1 Castres, 30/1 Draw, 1/6 Leinster. Handicap odds (Castres +12pts) 10/11 Castres, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.