Gerry Thornley: Champions Leinster hungry to fend off Wasps
Host of big names return as Cullen makes nine changes from the win over Munster
Leo Cullen: has experienced surprising defeats at the RDS to visiting English sides both as Leinster captain and coach. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Leinster v Wasps, RDS Arena, 7.45pm. On TV: Live on BT Sport.
Little about the season’s early skirmishes will have generated doubt about Leinster beginning their opening defence of the Heineken Champions Cup on anything other than a winning note. But history provides plenty of cautionary tales.
In 29 European games at the RDS, Leinster have won 26, but the three defeats have been on opening weekends to English opposition. Bath beat them in the first Euro game at the venue back in 2005, London Irish repeated the feat in 2009, and tonight’s opponents Wasps shredded them three seasons ago.
Rob Kearney remembers the first vividly, as it was his Euro debut, while Leo Cullen was captain for the London Irish defeat and as the Wasps loss was his Euro debut as head coach, Cullen is never likely to forget that one.
“I remember the Wasps one very well, and I remember the London Irish one very well,” he said with a wry smile, admitting that he cited the latter this week in squad meetings, not least as Leinster were reigning champions then too and had beaten Munster 30-0 six days earlier.
Kearney has thus been part of a Heineken Cup squad that didn’t retain the trophy (2009-10) and did (2011-12), and reckons one of the key mindsets is for the holders to forget that, well, they are the holders.
“As of tomorrow night, we’re just one of another team trying to get the trophy and you saw at the European media launch, Johnny [Sexton] carried the trophy in and he put it back down on the stand. And for me, that was a bit of a telling moment, that he was giving it back and it was all to play for again.”
“So certainly within the playing group that is the type of attitude we are trying to incorporate into this season, that we’re just one of the teams going chasing it again.”
All told, a dozen of this line-up started last May’s final in Bilbao which, given there are another nine changes in personnel from the win over Munster six days ago, suggests Leinster’s selection process has been at least partially planned.
So it is that Jordan Larmour returns while Garry Ringrose is recalled outside Robbie Henshaw. The Luke McGrath-Johnny Sexton half-back partnership is also renewed, as is the Cian Healy-Sean Cronin-Tadhg Furlong front row.
With the second row retained, Scott Fardy has to be content with a place on the bench and ditto Seán O’Brien, as Cullen and co opt to recall Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan while switching Dan Leavy to blindside, with Rhys Ruddock missing out altogether.
While the rotating may have come at the cost of continuity, there is also recent familiarity within the reshuffling. Only the back row has yet to start a game as a unit this season. The second row is having its third outing together, the front row its second, the half-backs their third, the midfield its third and the back three its second. Collectively Leinster also arrive at this point of the season as healthy as they are hungry.
By contrast, on a night when conditions are likely to make ball carriers especially valuable, Joe Launchbury’s continuing absence for Wasps is compounded by Nathan Hughes’s suspension for punching in last week’s home defeat to Gloucester.
The suspension remains undetermined, but is likely to be lengthened in light of his disciplinary hearing being suspended on Wednesday after Hughes posted a tweet saying “What a joke”. He then swiftly deleted it, but too late.
Ashley Johnson is also demoted to the bench, although this is to accommodate Brad Shields. Significantly, their expensively acquired playmaker and goal-kicker, 14-times capped All Blacks outhalf Lima Sopoaga returns, although sniping scrumhalf Dan Robson is injured.
Dai Young clearly didn’t fancy the idea of Christian Wade being pitted against James Lowe and so Wasps’ physical and feisty finisher Josh Bassett (eight tries in his last 11 games) makes a rare appearance on the right rather than left wing, where Elliot Daly is shifted.
Most remarkably, Willie le Roux starts after just a six-day turnaround despite failing an HIA 1, albeit passing an HIA 2, in South Africa’s thrilling loss to New Zealand in Pretoria last Saturday, since when he’s also undertaken a long-haul flight from South Africa. It was le Roux’s fumble over the line which prevented Wasps extending Leinster in the quarter-final two seasons ago.
Wasps have some nice strike plays which revolve around working Sopoaga into space, and have been both scoring tries (20 in six games) and conceding them (20 in six) with equal facility. Well though Leinster defended last week, they did become a little bunched at times but Munster failed to exploit some space out wide on occasion.
But you don’t win doubles without an all-weather, all-court game. Leinster’s scrum hasn’t imposed itself yet but is due a big night, all the more so with the all Test trio of Jack McGrath, James Tracy and Andrew Porter to spring from the bench.
Indeed, not only do they have a battalion of ball carriers to help put them on the front foot, and the unrelenting accuracy of their clearing out to but with Fardy and O’Brien also in reserve, Leinster also have the forward oomph off the bench to pin Wasps down for stretches.
With Sexton back to pull the strings, Leinster should be on their game, in which case they won’t allow another Anglo opening night slip-up.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (C), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, James Ryan; Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: James Tracy, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Scott Fardy, Seán O’Brien, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Joe Tomane.
WASPS: Willie Le Roux; Josh Bassett, Juan de Jongh, Michael Le Bourgeois, Elliot Daly (c); Lima Sopoaga, Joe Simpson; Zurabi Zhvania, Tommy Taylor, Kieran Brookes; Will Rowlands, James Gaskell; Brad Shields, Thomas Young, Nizaam Carr.
Replacements: Tom Cruse, Ben Harris, Will Stuart, Kearnan Myall, Ashley Johnson, Craig Hampson, Billy Searle, Rob Miller. Referee: Romain Poite
Tournament best: Leinster 4 times champions (2009, 2011, 2012, 2018). Wasps 2 times champions (2004, 2007).
Previous meetings: Played 8, Leinster 3 wins, 1 draw, Wasps 4 wins. (2006-07, q/f) Wasps 35 Leinster 12. (2008-09) Leinster 41 Wasps 11, Wasps 19 Leinster 12. (2014-15) Leinster 25 Wasps 20, Wasps 20 Leinster 20. (2015-16) Leinster 6 Wasps 33, Wasps 51 Leinster 10. (2016-17, q/f) Leinster 32 Wasps 17.
This season’s formguide: Leinster – W 34-32 Cardiff (a), L 21-23 v Scarlets (a), W 52-10 v Dragons (h), W 31-7 v Edinburgh (h), W 20-3 v Connacht (a), W 30-22 v Munster (h). Wasps – W 21-20 v Worcester (a), L 31-42 v Exeter (h), W 41-35 v Leicester (h), W 31-13 v Sale (9a), W 23-22 v Newcastle (a), L 21-35 v Gloucester (h).
Betting (Paddy Power): 1/10, 30/1 Draw, 6/1 Wasps. Handicap odds (Wasps + 17 pts): 10/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Wasps.
Forecast: Leinster to win.