Saturday 19 August 2017

Fitzgerald willrelish roleas Leinster stand-in

Luke Fitzgerald will operate at full-back for Leinster in this evening's Magners League opener against Glasgow Warriors
Luke Fitzgerald will operate at full-back for Leinster in this evening's Magners League opener against Glasgow Warriors

Hugh Farrelly

CONSIDER this. If Leinster coach Joe Schmidt had a full squad to select from for their Magners League opener against Glasgow, chances are that only second-row Nathan Hines, No 8 Jamie Heaslip and open-side Sean O'Brien (if he could hold off the challenge of Shane Jennings) would survive in the positions they fill at Firhill tonight (7.05).

Luke Fitzgerald and Isa Nacewa would also be picked in a full-strength selection but probably on the wings rather than at full-back and out-half respectively and it all serves to emphasise the difficulty of Leinster's opening assignment.

The Fitzgerald situation is an interesting one. He has made no secret of the fact that 15 is his preferred jersey but it is hard to escape the conclusion that, come the World Cup, Ireland's best back three would be Rob Kearney at full-back, Fitzgerald and Tommy Bowe on the wings (it was good enough for the Lions) and Keith Earls covering or possibly moved into the centre alongside Brian O'Driscoll.

That is for another day. The immediate challenge is for Leinster to get their league campaign up and running at a venue where they have not triumphed since 2006.

The likes of centre Eoin O'Malley, wing Niall Morris and flanker Dominic Ryan are academy graduates short on Magners League experience and will need to draw on the know-how of more seasoned campaigners such as Fitzgerald, O'Brien, Heaslip, Shane Horgan, Hines and Isaac Boss.

With Cian Healy not considered, Stan Wright on the long-term injury list and Mike Ross ruled out with a calf injury, there is an onus on prop Heinke van der Merwe, his South African hooking colleague Richardt Strauss and Ballymena tight-head Simon Shawe to provide front-row solidity.

In the second row, Hines and new signing Ed O'Donoghue know their oats while Leinster's greatest strength lies in the back-row of Heaslip, O'Brien and the promising Ryan.

There is plenty of pace in the backline, where O'Malley's centre partner Fergus McFadden has a proven pedigree at this level, but a great deal hinges on Nacewa's performance.

results

The 28-year-old wore the No 10 jersey under Michael Cheika a couple of seasons ago, before Jonathan Sexton had properly announced himself, and the results were decidedly mixed.

Nacewa is not a natural kicker of the ball while his running ability is better utilised in the wider channels and his selection at out-half places a greater degree of responsibility on the shoulders of Boss, who will need to exert control inside him.

Glasgow coach Sean Lineen is not without his selection headaches and must do without captain Alastair Kellock in the second row, accomplished Scotland back-rows Johnny Beattie and John Barclay and scrum-half Chris Cusiter.

Nonetheless, as well as a powerful front row, the Warriors have strength in the shape of Graeme Morrison who will run hard at Leinster's young midfield, the pace and evasion skills of Max Evans outside him and the mobility of Richie Vernon in the back-row.

Out-half Ruaridh Jackson is very highly rated in Scotland and the youngster will be determined to make a statement this season after injury affected his last campaign.

Leinster's pre-season featured a couple of big defeats to Wasps and Leicester when the English sides' greater experience gave them a pronounced advantage. However, tonight is more of a level playing field and Hines believes Leinster can put those results behind them.

"Leicester was an improved performance compared to Wasps," said Hines.

"We would have liked to have made bigger strides forward, but as long as we go to Glasgow and produce what we can do on the training pitch and come away with a win, then it doesn't really matter what happens in pre-season."

In tough circumstances, a victory would be a fantastic start to Schmidt's competitive tenure but a losing bonus point would also represent a fair return because, with both sides missing central figures, this looks like a night when home advantage could be telling.

Verdict: Glasgow

GLASGOW -- B Stortoni (capt); DTH van der Merwe, M Evans, G Morrison, F Aramburu; R Jackson, H Pyrgos; J Welsh, F Thomson, M Low; T Ryder, R Gray; R Wilson, C Fusaro, R Vernon. Reps: P MacArthur, E Kalman, R Grant, A Muldowney, R Harley, D Weir, H O'Hare, P Murchie

LEINSTER -- L Fitzgerald; S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, N Morris; I Nacewa, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, S Shawe; N Hines, E O'Donoghue; D Ryan, S O'Brien (capt), J Heaslip. Reps: J Fogarty, J McGrath, B Prescott, M Galarza, S Keogh, P O'Donohoe, I Madigan, E Sheridan.

REF -- T Hayes (Wales).

Glasgow v Leinster,

Live, RTE 2, 7.05

Irish Independent

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