Leinster quality to sink French
Published 12/11/2011 | 05:00
NO Brian O'Driscoll, a lunch-time kick-off and unknown opponents -- Leinster's opening match in defence of their Heineken Cup title against Montpellier at the Stade Yves du Manoir is more than a little unsettling.
It helps to explain the air of nervous tension around the Leinster camp this week as they enter a campaign where they will be targeted as a prized scalp and one where the old 'second season syndrome' favourite will be flung at them at the first sign of weakness.
O'Driscoll's announcement that we will be out for six months earlier this week means Leinster will have to negotiate Europe without their primary source of inspiration and this puts pressure on younger members of the squad to front up in his absence.
Fergus McFadden wears the famous No 13 jersey today knowing that a strong performance here would lock him into the position and help set him on the way to securing the same slot for Ireland in a few months' time.
He partners Gordon D'Arcy and that midfield combination carries considerable potential -- but it would also be interesting to see them swap positions for McFadden looks more like a natural 12 and D'Arcy's finest season in the 13 jersey was when O'Driscoll was unavailable in 2004.
It is an unchanged backline from the one that could not break down Munster, but with Dave Pearson officiating you would expect, and hope, that more ball will find its way into the hands of Isa Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald on this occasion.
The changes arrive up front, where Heinke van der Merwe starts at loose-head, with Cian Healy rested after picking up a niggle in training, while Damien Browne comes into the second-row in place of Devin Toner. Kevin McLaughlin starts at blind-side with Sean O'Brien switching to No 7 and Shane Jennings dropping to the bench.
While not having a player of Healy's ability is always a blow, Van der Merwe has proved to be an excellent signing by Leinster, and a productive one also, as today will be his 40th appearance for the province having only joined last season.
As he demonstrated on Leinster's run to the title last season, the South African is a powerful scrummager and a forceful presence in the loose, a player who will not be intimidated by hostile French surroundings. Nor will Browne, well accustomed to the type of atmosphere Leinster will encounter today from his time with Brive.
Browne may lack the subtle handling skills of the departed Nathan Hines, but he forms a workhorse engine room next to Leo Cullen and the type of bulk necessary for an assignment of this nature.
McLaughlin adds more heft and line-out inches to the pack, while O'Brien, at open-side, has a battle on his hands against Montpellier captain Fulgence Ouedraogo at breakdown time.
It remains to be seen how this affects his ball-carrying while Dominic Ryan, one of the best long-term open-side prospects in the country, fails to make the squad and is leading the 'A' side against Esher in the British and Irish Cup the same afternoon.
Montpellier intend to make a dramatic entry into European rugby's flagship competition and have been gearing up for this tilt at the champions for two weeks, having had last weekend off.
The side does not carry the same array of heavyweight names as Toulouse, Clermont or Racing and their Top 14 form has been less than impressive (they are 12th).
However, that can be explained, in part, by World Cup absenteeism, now rectified, and they have some serious operators in their ranks.
As well as their captain, there is Georgian colossus Mamuka Gorgodze in the back-row, the power of Thibaut Privat at lock and, most significantly, France's World Cup cause célèbre Francois Trinh-Duc at out-half.
Marc Lievremont may not have been convinced last month, but Trinh-Duc is a serious operator and one of Leinster's primary briefs will be to keep him contained.
There are a couple of other familiar names in the backline: former Ulster winger Timoci Nagusa and Pumas full-back Lucas Amorosino but it is also a team short on Heineken Cup experience, a competition that presents a different set of challenges to the Top 14, and one Leinster should be defeating if they are to live up to their status as champions.
And you would back them to do it. This is just the type of occasion to bring out the best in Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien, while Jonathan Sexton looked far more assured since his return from New Zealand.
It will not be easy -- Montpellier will be too fired up for that -- but Leinster have enough quality and experience to pull away in the second period and set themselves up nicely for Glasgow's visit to Dublin next week.
MONTPELLIER -- L Amorosino; T Nagusa, G Doumayrou, S Fernandez, Y Audrin; F Trinh-Duc, B Paillaugue; N Leleimalefaga, A Creevy, M Bustos; M Demarco, T Privat; F Ouedraogo (capt), M Gorgodze, M Matadigo. Reps: R van Vuuren, M Nariashvili, G Jgenti, D Hancke, R Martin, J Tomas, P Bosch, M Bustos Moyano
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Browne; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, N White, D Toner, S Jennings, E Reddan, I Madigan, E O'Malley.
REF -- D Pearson (England)
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