Blues to edge battle of big cats
Lion-hearted Leinster have firepower to tame prowling Tigers
A LOT of nerves around Leinster for this one.
These stem from losing a game to Munster that was there for the taking, the post-Six Nations readjustment period for the province's international stars, the favourites tag that never seems to sit comfortably with Irish teams and the fact that it is Leicester who provide the opposition in this evening's sold-out Lansdowne Road Heineken Cup quarter-final (6.0).
The Tigers are prowling, padding assuredly into this highly anticipated clash with a low growl of intent. Their hunger is fuelled by the desire to exact revenge for their final loss to Leinster two years ago, allied to their England contingent's desperation to atone for the national dismemberment they endured at the same venue a few weeks ago.
Leinster are a quality outfit; that much was evident in Thomond Park last weekend (particularly in the first half) and if they can return to the verve of their pool performances , Joe Schmidt's side have the capacity to win with a degree of comfort.
It's the 'if' that troubles, because the Tigers tend to feast on opposition uncertainty and backed up by their customary dominance of the English Premiership will not be short on self-belief.
'Rhythm is going to get you', goes the song and 'rhythm' is a word that has featured heavily in Schmidt's pre-match positioning this week. If Leinster rediscover it and play with the tempo that has characterised their best performances this season, they are in business, because they bring greater attacking potency and more game-breakers to this party.
However, if they get dragged into a war of attrition -- as they did in the second half at Thomond Park a week ago -- then Leicester can grapple their way into the last four.
The spring hiatus issue has been frustrating for Schmidt, but no more than it has for any of the coaches reintroducing Six Nations players and the New Zealander knew all along that this would be factor at the knock-out stages.
He must do without the warrior presence of ex-Leicester flanker Shane Jennings, who would have been perfectly suited to this contest where the breakdown battle will be critical as the Tigers set out to slow down Leinster's ruck ball.
It means Sean O'Brien starts at openside, where the Tullow man is more than capable of doing a job, but may be consequently limited in opportunities to produce the barnstorming charges that lit up his international endeavours from the blind-side slot.
The upside is that Kevin McLaughlin's continued presence strengthens Leinster's line-out options, which is crucial against a side with the athletic Tom Croft in the back-row.
Marcos Ayerza's suspension works in the home side's favour because, while Boris Stankovich is an experienced operator and decent scrummager, Mike Ross has coped well with him in the past in his Harlequins days and would have been more unsettled if the Puma loose-head had been available.
On the other side, Dan Cole holds off the challenge of Martin Castrogiovanni and is relishing his rematch with Cian Healy after the Irishman negated the English tight-head's influence last month.
There are other rematches at half-back, where Eoin Reddan makes his expected return to the scrum-half role to partner Jonathan Sexton and, if that pair can replicate their dominance over England's highly-rated Ben Youngs-Toby Flood combo, Leinster will be well on their way.
In midfield, Leicester's wrecking-ball No 13 Manu Tuilagi will charge into Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy throughout, but the Ireland pair have seen it all before, while Leinster look to have the edge in the back three -- once Shane Horgan can shackle the elder Tuilagi, Alesana.
"It was something of a reality check in Munster," admitted Schmidt, "but we have trained hard this week and we realise nothing is going to come easy.
"A lot of people go on about Ireland beating England at the Aviva, but Leicester are a very different team to England and had only five players involved. They will have parked that and moved on."
Leinster start eight players who began that reaffirmation exercise against England and, though as Schmidt points out, the Tigers are a different animal, that match is not a bad template for his men to work off as it was pace and intensity that did for the Grand Slam chasers that day.
Nigel Owens is on the whistle, a good omen for Leinster, given the Welshman's presence on their route to glory in 2009. He has come down hard on the Irish in the past -- notably in Murrayfield last February -- but Leinster will have done their homework and, as captain Leo Cullen said this week, they know what Owens is "hot" on.
Bench impact will be significant and Leicester can call on Castrogiovanni and Thomas Waldrom to mix it up, while Leinster have the likes of Stan Wright, Isaac Boss and Fergus McFadden for second-half impact.
Then there is the home advantage factor. Having the overwhelming majority of supporters is a considerable boon for Leinster, but dependent on giving them something to get behind while the visitors pride themselves on fronting up in hostile environments.
In contests such as these, the margins are everything, and with this one so incredibly tight to call, perhaps the animal kingdom can provide the answer.
Leinster used to be known as the Lions and with the winners in an excellent position to go on and claim another Heineken Cup title, it truly is a battle of the big cats.
That being said, there is only one king of the jungle.