Leinster need cutting edge to clip wings of Welsh high-flyers
Sexton, Healy and Furlong return as Cullen names strong side to face in-form Ospreys
Johnny Sexton will make his season bow for Leinster against table-topping Ospreys at the RDS this weekend. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
The sense that the season is being cranked up a notch is palpable. In the teething stages of a long Lions season, Johnny Sexton makes his seasonal return and so too do Alun Wyn Jones and Dan Biggar after cameos off the bench last week.
In all, each starting team boasts a dozen internationals each for a game between the Guinness Pro12 League’s two most successful outfits, with four titles apiece.
Alongside Sexton, scrumhalf Luke McGrath is restored, as are Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Mick Kearney (who makes his seasonal re-appearance in the league) and Josh van der Flier, with Rhys Ruddock also in line for his return amongst a six-two split on the bench.
Hence, despite his two-try performance last week, Van der Flier’s recall means Dan Leavy moves to the bench, and considering they also have Seán O’Brien to come back into the mix in the next month, not to mention Dominic Ryan and Jack Conan, Leinster have the backrow reserves to sustain themselves over the season.
Recognising the campaign is a marathon not a sprint, Leo Cullen commented: “We need to be able to rely on more than 23 players over the course of season that involves 22 Pro 12 games, six Champions Cup games and hopefully five playoff games after that.
“So it’s the squad – making sure it’s competitive, everyone’s training every day, knowing that if they train well they have a good chance of playing at the weekend. I think that’s important.”
The aforementioned Jones will lead the side on his 200th appearance for his home region, while the inclusion of Biggar, so often a thorn in Leinster’s side and not least at the RDS, alongside the recalled Rhys Webb, sees Sam Davies shift to fullback after steering his side to three bonus-point wins. Ashley Beck also returns after time out with a sore hip and Bradley Davies features on the bench.
After an encouraging couple of outings in Scotland, not least last weekend’s bonus-point win in Edinburgh, Leinster return to the comforts of home. The sylvan setting of the RDS in Dublin 4 may not be the most readily identifiable citadel in European rugby, but Leinster have made their home into something of a fortress in recent years, particularly in the Pro12.
Since the Ospreys won the 2012 Grand Final here by 31-30, Leinster have played 46 league matches and lost only two of them (to Ulster in March 2013 and the Dragons in February 2015). The Ospreys, like Glasgow a year later, did escape with a 29-29 draw three seasons ago, but Leinster are currently on a 15-game unbeaten run at the RDS in the Pro12.
Granted too, the Ospreys have the best record of any visiting side in the last seven seasons, winning three times (including both the finals of 2010 and ’12) and drawing once in their last nine visits.
Most tellingly of all perhaps, nine of the sides’ last 10 meetings at the RDS have been one-score games.
Furthermore, of course, the Ospreys are flying, becoming the first team to begin a league campaign with a maximum haul of 15 points from their first three games.
Granted, this has incorporated two eight-try feasts at home to the Italian duo, as well as a bonus-point win away to off-colour Connacht. Nevertheless, they put Treviso to the sword last weekend in a manner well beyond Leinster on the league’s opening night.
As with Leinster and Glasgow, as bulk suppliers to the Welsh national squad, they were hit hardest by last season’s World Cup gobbling up the first two months of the campaign, so their apparent resurgence is not all that surprising.
Failing to press on in the second-half has been a recurring theme of Leinster’s initial games, and Cullen is mindful of their need for a more compelling 80-minute effort this time.
Noting how Leinster scored seven tries in the respective first periods of their games in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and only one in the second halves, Cullen added: “You’ve got to give a bit of credit to the opposition that we’ve played as well, they came back strong in in those games, but yeah, it’s something that we’ve got to be conscious of.
“But it’s probably a knock-on effect. I’m not making excuses but we certainly need to be better.”
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; I Nacewa (capt), G Ringrose, N Reid, D Kearney; J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, M Kearney, J Murphy, J van der Flier, J Heaslip. Replacements: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Ross, R Molony, R Ruddock, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery.
OSPREYS: S Davies; J Hassler, A Beck, J Matavesi, B John; D Biggar, R Webb; P James, S Baldwin, D Arhip, L Ashley, A Wyn Jones (Capt), J King, J Tipuric, T Ardron. Replacements: S Parry, N Smith, M Fia, B Davies, D Baker, T Habberfield, D Howells, D Evans.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR).
Last three seasons: (2013-14) Leinster 29 Ospreys 29. Ospreys 25 Leinster 19. (2014-15) Leinster 18 Ospreys 12. Ospreys 9 Lenster 9. (2015-16) Ospreys 9 Leinster 22. Leinster 19 Ospreys 16.
Form guide: Leinster – Treviso (H) W 20-8; Glasgow (A) L 25-33; Edinburgh (A) W 33-20. Ospreys – Zebre (H) W 59-5; Connacht (A) W 32-11. Treviso (H) W 64-10.
Leading try scorers: Leinster – Joey Carbery, Dan Leavy 2 each. Ospreys – Sam Parry 4.
Leading points scorers: Leinster – Carbery 20. Ospreys – Sam Davies 42.
Betting (Paddy Power): 2/5 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 21/10 Ospreys. Handicap odds (Ospreys +6pts) 10/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Ospreys.
Forecast: Leinster to win.