Gibbes: Fitzgerald has class to see him through
Published 21/01/2011 | 05:00
Leinster's increasing attempts to stem the giddiness among supporters already wallowing in Heineken Cup qualification have pertinent echoes in the recent history of this competition.
Indeed, it is necessary to reiterate that, notwithstanding the difficulty of a pool Joe Schmidt felt may have been won with just 15 points when he reeled upon discovering the draw, this will not be Leinster's high point in terms of qualification.
Twice in the last decade Leinster swept all before them in admittedly far less taxing qualification pools; in 2002-03, Bristol, Swansea and Montferrand succumbed, while Benetton, Bath and Bourgoin were wiped two years later.
On both occasions, Leinster failed to go the distance; firstly, losing at the semi-final stage meekly to Perpignan before Leicester surprised them in Declan Kidney's final game in charge two years later.
The winning is never done until the final day. However impressive Leinster may have been -- thus far deserving their status as leading contenders for the crown -- to forego a home quarter-final at this stage would be errant in the extreme.
Brian O'Driscoll is clearly not subscribing to an often loosely propagated theory that a French side may roll over and have their bellies tickled -- albeit that Racing are both out of the competition and, as second-placed Top 14 contenders, anxiously awaiting a crucial away date in Clermont next Wednesday.
"You can be sure they're not going to roll over," declares O'Driscoll. "There's huge pride to be gained, particularly for French sides, from not losing at home, whether it be in the Top 14 or in Europe.
"I wouldn't envisage they're going to send out a team that expects to lose the game. They'll want to impress their home crowd, they'll want to finish the competition on a high, so we're certainly not going to walk into a home quarter-final.
"We'll have to fight for our victory and I anticipate a very hard game -- as they always are in France, irrespective of the opposition."
His familiar mucker Gordon D'Arcy starts at centre having overcome the calf strain which ruled him out of the Saracens match, while in the only other change to the back-line, Ireland international Isaac Boss partners Jonathan Sexton at half-back.
Akin to the rotation of scrum-halves, canny Schmidt has beefed up the pack. Fresh from his call-up into the Ireland Six Nations squad, Rhys Ruddock comes into the back-row alongside Sean O'Brien and Shane Jennings, who both committed their futures to the province earlier this week.
A doubt surrounds replacement Eoin O'Malley due to illness and a decision on his availability will be made closer to kick-off.
Luke Fitzgerald is arguably lucky to remain in the side following his late introduction last week; one feels that there is a measure of subtle international messaging going on here. Ireland's full-back crisis demands an improvement in form from Fitzgerald.
"Form is temporary, class is permanent, isn't that the old saying?" insists forwards coach Jono Gibbes.
"He's worked really hard and a couple of things were maybe not up to this own high standards. He's addressed those and it won't be through a lack of endeavour this week. He'll bounce back for sure."
There must now also be major doubts as to the extent of Jamie Heaslip's persistent ankle problems, albeit his absence has ironically barely been noticed by Leinster enthusiasts, such has been O'Brien's barnstorming form.
Ruddock's continued impact will be closely monitored following the official sanction from the international management that he has leap-frogged ahead of Kevin McLaughlin in the pecking order.
Racing have switched around three of the front-five as hooker Gregory Arganese, prop Scott Zimmerman and lock Santiago Dellape replace Carlo Festuccia, Benjamin Sa and Karim Ghezal.
'The beast' -- Sebastien Chabal -- is injured, but they have reserved Andrea Lo Cicero, Lionel Nallet and Jacques Cronje for bench duty with Wednesday in mind and, given that scenario, Leinster will be keen not to allow the home side maintain their interest into the second half.
The enigmatic Juan Martin Hernandez partners Nicolas Durand at half-back, a warning for Leinster that if they succumb in the trenches, this twin-brains trust can cause havoc.
The big boot of Francois Steyn is also held in reserve for a potential late, late show in the historic Stade Colombes.
The prodigiously talented 18-year-old Fijian Virimi Vakatawa begins only his second game for the club; O'Driscoll will doubtless afford him a warm welcome to big-time rugby.
Not that complacency will mock the Ireland captain as he hopes to celebrate his 32nd birthday by helping Leinster secure a potentially money-spinning quarter-final.
"With regards to the talk, we're not in control of that," he says. "What we are in control of is continuing to achieve our standards.
"There were times when we slipped below those standards last weekend against Saracens. Having said that, we did play some really good rugby. It's about getting the consistency for the 80-minute performance.
"We're not losing the run of ourselves at all, we still have a hell of a lot to play for in this group and it's a huge thing to play for a home quarter-final, our total focus is on that.
"There's no point in looking ahead to the knockout stages, even though we've qualified, because there's nothing to be gained from that. It's about focusing on Friday and making sure we give ourselves the opportunity to be seeded one to four and get that home quarter-final."
They should do so with an authority they have amply demonstrated thus far in this competition.
Verdict: Leinster by 10-5
Racing Metro 92 -- D Scarbrough; B Fall, V Vakatawa, A Masi, J Saubade; J Hernandez, N Durand (capt); J Brugnaut, G Arganese, S Zimmermann, S Dellape, F van der Merwe, R Vaquiin, B Le Roux, A Galindo. Reps: B Noirot, A Lo Cicero, B Sa, L Nallet, M Loree, F Steyn, J Cronje, A Batut.
Leinster -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), N Hines, R Ruddock, S Jennings, S O'Brien.
Reps: J Harris-Wright, H Van Der Merwe, C Newland, D Toner, D Ryan, E Reddan, E O'Malley, F McFadden.
Ref -- G Garner (England).
Racing Metro 92 v Leinster,
Live, Sky Sports 2, 8.0