New McFadden-O'Malley midfield pairing to set out stall for club and country
LEINSTER and Irish rugby will get a glimpse of the future this evening when Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley start their first Heineken Cup match in midfield together against Bath at Lansdowne Road.
Gordon D'Arcy's 'minor niggle' means McFadden gets his shot in the No 12 jersey, having played well last week at outside-centre, where Eoin O'Malley gets another opportunity to give his best Brian O'Driscoll impression.
With O'Driscoll due back from his shoulder rehabilitation by the end of the season and D'Arcy still going strong, any 'changing of the guard' talk is premature, but this midfield pairing certainly represents a new departure and one that could have ramifications for Ireland coach Declan Kidney.
Both players have been on the scene for a couple of seasons now. McFadden is further along the path, having already represented Ireland and at 25, is a couple of years older than his partner.
But both centres have proved they can mix it at high level and this evening would be a perfect occasion to emphasise the point.
D'Arcy is still the front-runner for the No 12 berth when Ireland kick off their Six Nations campaign in February, while McFadden and O'Malley are both among the contenders for O'Driscoll's outside-centre slot.
However, while he has showed his ability to play in both positions, McFadden looks a natural fit at inside-centre. Carrying the pace that sees him regularly used on the wing, McFadden has a good step and fend to go with it and, most impressively, tremendous leg strength in contact.
Furthermore, as he has shown repeatedly off the tee, McFadden knows how to strike the ball and provides a useful auxiliary kicking option outside Jonathan Sexton.
Distribution is central to the No 12 position and it would be good to see McFadden firing out long, accurate passes to wingers Luke Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa, or to Rob Kearney when he joins the line. The World Cup was a frustrating experience for McFadden, who was denied the chance to prove his worth in the centre when Tommy Bowe's late withdrawal forced the Leinster man onto the right wing against Russia.
This is the chance to show exactly what he brings to the table, as it is for O'Malley, and, in front of a record home crowd on a fast pitch, with the Ireland squad meeting up for the first time since the World Cup over Christmas, the timing could not be better.
They will have to be on their guard against a Bath midfield that has been bulked up by Matt Banahan's switch to 13. With his giant, 6'7" heavily tattooed frame, Banahan may not be the most subtle operator in the competition, but he takes some stopping and needs to be hit low and hard with secondary tacklers preventing the England international from freeing those long arms.
Injury to Dan Hipkiss is the reason why Banahan has moved inside, with Sam Vesty at full-back and Nick Abendanon relocating from 15 to 11.
It is, arguably, a stronger selection than the one which put it up to Leinster at The Rec last week, with Vesty a good footballer at the back and Banahan offering a greater chance of front-foot momentum in a central role.
However, Bath's hopes depend to a huge degree on the performance of out-half Stephen Donald, whose tendency to drift across consistently cut down space outside in the first match.
Shane Jennings is back to get in Donald's face this evening, one of a number of predicted reintroductions alongside second-row Devin Toner and scrum-half Eoin Reddan.
The one surprise is that Cian Healy is not starting at loose-head, but continues to provide cover for Heinke van der Merwe, with Mike Ross at tight-head against a decent Bath scrum.
It means Healy is one of six internationals ready to bring impact off the bench, but, while Van der Merwe's quality is well proven, it would have been good to see both Irish props starting.
That does not mean Bath's task is any less daunting.
Running out onto a pitch where they have a 100pc Heineken Cup record -- including wins over European heavyweights such as Toulouse, Clermont and Leicester -- and playing in front of an ocean of blue-bedecked supporters (ticket sales are approaching 50,000) is guaranteed to inspire the Leinster players and this could be spectacular exhibition of the champions' credentials.
Last week's lack of accuracy has ensured no element of complacency in the build-up and the home side promise to be ruthless when they get a sniff of the try-line second time around.
That does not mean the ball will be flung wide for the sake of it and Leinster need to stay on the right side of Romain Poite, particularly at the breakdown.
With a powerful pack capable of establishing a platform, a Leinster bonus-point win beckons given the tremendous attacking potential out wide -- not least in the centre, where we could see the first significant step for a midfield partnership dripping with promise.
• Leinster are conducting a charity text campaign for Action Breast Cancer, Barretstown, Bray Lakers, St John Ambulance and Welcome Home. Texting the word LEINSTER to 57800 donates €2.50 to the five charities and entrants will have a chance to win an all-expense trip to see the Heineken Cup match against Glasgow in January.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; I Nacewa, E O'Malley, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; H Van Der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross, L Cullen (capt), D Toner, S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: S Cronin, C Healy, N White, R Ruddock, K McLaughlin, I Boss, I Madigan, G D'Arcy
BATH -- S Vesty; J Cuthbert, M Banahan, O Barkley, N Abendanon; S Donald, M Claassens; D Flatman, C Biller, D Wilson, D Attwood, R Caldwell, F Louw (capt), G Mercer, S Taylor. Reps: R Batty, N Catt, A Perenise, W Spencer, A Beattie, C Cook, T Heathcote, B Williams
REF - Romain Poite (France)
Leinster v Bath,
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