Leinster v Northampton Saints, RDS, Saturday, 1pm – Live on Virgin Media/Channel 4/BT Sport
Already atop Pool A as one of only two sides to obtain a five-point haul in that half of the draw last weekend, an imposing-looking Leinster side have the chance to maintain their push for a place in the knock-out stages and, potentially, something more than that.
Although it’s early days yet, by close of business on Sunday evening we will be halfway through the pool stages, and the prize for topping Pool A would not only ensure playing the second leg of the quarter-finals at home, but would have the additional carrot of home country advantage in the semi-final stages.
They welcome back a half dozen frontline Irish internationals into their starting XV in the shape of Garry Ringrose, Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter and James Ryan, as well as promoting two probable internationals of the future in Harry Byrne and Ryan Baird.
Northampton also make eight changes from the side which lost 16-12 to Bordeaux-Begles in round one, although even without Courtney Lawes and the injured Dan Biggar it is not exactly a team of greenhorns. Chris Boyd also makes two positional switches, with four-times capped England fullback George Furbank providing his running threat from outhalf.
Noting the many established names within their starting XV, which includes a half dozen internationals, Leo Cullen also noted the presence of four players of Test standard on the their bench in the dual World Cup-winning tighthead Owen Franks, who earned 108 caps for the All Blacks, Teimana Harrison, Piers Francis and Matt Proctor.
“Teams are going to chop and change, that’s just the nature of managing a squad and prioritising different things at different times of the year,” said Cullen. “But you couldn’t tell me that that’s a scratch academy team Northampton are sending over. That’s a strong team and it’s important for our guys to understand who we’re up against, which are bloody good players.”
Healy is the only player from either line-up to have played in the 2011 final, when Leinster completed their epic comeback to earn the first of the four stars on their jerseys, with Cullen as captain. While Northampton stunned Leinster at the Aviva Stadium seven years ago to avenge a 40-7 defeat at Franklin’s Gardens a week before, it remains their only win in nine previous meetings.
This is also their first trip to the RDS, and anything less than a convincing Leinster win would be a major surprise.
LEINSTER: Jimmy O'Brien; Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Harry Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter; Ryan Baird, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.
Replacements: James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Dan Leavy.
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS: Tom Collins; Ryan Olowofela, Fraser Dingwall, Rory Hutchinson, Taqele Naiyaravoro; George Furbank, Tom James; Alex Waller (capt), Sam Matavesi, Paul Hill; Alex Moon, Api Ratuniyarawa; Nick Isiekwe, Tom Wood, Shaun Adendorff.
Replacements: Mikey Haywood, Francois van Wyk, Owen Franks, Alex Coles, Teimana Harrison, Henry Taylor, Piers Francis, Matt Proctor.
Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)
Forecast: Leinster to win with a bonus point.