Mighty Leo can prove his worth
Published 09/04/2010 | 05:00
ONCE the hunter now the hunted. Winning the Heineken Cup last year put Leinster on a pedestal but, despite the veil of expectation draped over Michael Cheika's men, they have every chance of making it back-to-back titles -- if they can overcome the monumental challenge of Clermont Auvergne at the RDS tonight.
The fascinating aspect about Leinster's 2010 cup run, compared to last season, is the completely opposite circumstances. Wind the clock back 12 months and Irish rugby was on a high after the national side conquered all before them with a fantastic Grand Slam-securing display in the Six Nations.
All the Leinster boys coming back from Ireland duty seemed to have grown a foot taller and played with a huge sense of confidence and purpose in the Heineken Cup knockout stages.
With nearly every player happy with their form and the faith shown in them throughout the Six Nations, this was a real catalyst for our success in Europe. Players like Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy and the incomparable Brian O'Driscoll became dominant figures in the tournament. The team had been all but written off, having just scraped through to the quarter-finals in seventh spot, and were well beaten in Munster the week before their last-eight showdown with Harlequins. Far from ideal on the surface but, in fact, it was great preparation.
A year on, and Leinster find themselves in a completely different position. They go into tonight's quarter-final having beaten Munster twice -- most recently courtesy of an excellent display at Thomond Park -- and there is an enormous weight of expectation behind this team.
Ireland didn't have the Six Nations they would have hoped for, culminating in a disappointing loss to Scotland, which means some players will not have reported back for club duty with the same level of confidence they had in 2009.
For others, there is the disappointment of not getting the faith of Ireland coach Declan Kidney when it was due. Leinster captain Leo Cullen, one of the best line-out forwards in Europe and a proven performer in big games, sat idle while an Irish forward pack struggled for ascendancy against the Scots and their normally effective line-out defaulted.
With all of Europe watching tonight, there may be a little fire burning in some Leinster men, which is no bad thing. Clermont will present an almighty challenge at the RDS. A powerful scrum led by Mario Ledesma will provide a huge test for the Leinster eight and, after a stellar first international season, Cian Healy will be desperate to get on the park and prove himself against another world-class front-row following a tough day against the French in Paris.
Irish fans will remember Jamie Cudmore as the guy who went hammer and tongs with Paul O'Connell at Thomond Park last season and he is typical of the abrasive type of forward that dominates French rugby (though I doubt Cullen would tolerate as many free shots as O'Connell did).
In the back-row, Julien Bonnaire is a class act and his duel with Jamie Heaslip will be massive. But Heaslip continues to improve and can now consider himself among the top echelon of No 8s in the game.
Normally, Clermont would pose a threat to any team in the centres, but with their injury problems in this area and the fact they are up against one of the best defensive and attacking centre pairings in the game, Clermont's midfield threat could be nullified.
Brock James possesses a potent kicking game and it is vital that Leinster don't let him into the game because he can set the tempo, with his team-mates all too happy to follow his direction.
Brock has won many a game for his team with his boot alone and I feel Kearney could be the key figure here. Kearney's cultured left boot can be a dangerous weapon, but if a misdirected James punt finds his arms, there could be even greater danger as he's now much more likely to pin the ears back and try to split a gap.
Kearney was criticised for not finding his brilliant form of the 2009 Six Nations and Lions tour but, as any tight-forward will tell you, you don't want your full-back attacking from deep when he's all alone, which is exactly where he found himself.
If I had to back anyone to catch marbles in a hail storm it'd be Kearney, which is just as well as I can see the back threes of both sides playing a very big part in this one.
Then there is Clermont scrum-half Morgan Parra, the catalyst for his side's attacking ploys and a player who proved in the Six Nations just how dangerous he can be.
Both Irish representatives in the quarter-finals have tough challenges this weekend which, if they make it through, will be great preparation for things to come.
It will be fascinating to see how Leinster's role reversal will affect them tonight and how Munster cope when they face a flying Northampton tomorrow.