Schmidt's stars return to build up momentum
GORDON D'ARCY will start his 211th game for Leinster tonight, albeit in the unfamiliar outside-centre role, when they take on Zebre at the RDS.
Joe Schmidt is obviously determined to build momentum ahead of the return to Heineken Cup action next weekend and has chosen to omit only Jamie Heaslip from his returning galaxy of international stars, spelling bad news for the Italian visitors.
Zebre are still without a competitive victory this season and it's impossible to see them reversing that trend tonight given the gulf in standard between the opposing sets of gladiators.
At half-back, for example, Leinster have Ireland pivot Jonny Sexton orchestrating matters. His opposite number Daniel Halangahu, an Australian of Tongan descent, is uncapped at international level.
That discrepancy is enlightening when assessing the likelihood of Zebre causing what would be a massive upset. The overbearing reality is that they will do well to keep the scoreline at a respectable level.
Leo Cullen was at pains this week to point out the physical nature of Zebre's players, their pack in particular. But the decision to rest South African back-row forward Dries van Schalkwyk for tonight's game does indicate that they may have already thrown in the towel.
For Leinster, the challenges over the following two weekends will prove to be far more arduous. Their trip to Clermont tomorrow week is one that will test them far more, which is why so many of the internationals are being pressed into service tonight.
Schmidt – who has been overlooked by Warren Gatland as Lions backs coach in favour of Andy Farrell – has made allowances for Mike Ross and Richardt Strauss after their excursions for Ireland but, with Michael Bent and Sean Cronin slotting into the front-row alongside South African international loosehead Heinke van der Merwe, the home side still boasts a very impressive front three.
Zebre, as expected, start former Munster prop Dave Ryan at tighthead alongside Matias Aguero and former Italy hooker Carlo Festuccia but it's hard to see them getting any change from Leinster's front-row.
Behind the scrum the quality is, again, all blue. Fergus McFadden is named in an exciting back three alongside Andrew Conway and Isa Nacewa (full-back) while Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Isaac Boss have been named on a strong bench.
Leinster's only loss in their last six games in all competitions was a 19-10 Pro12 defeat at Ospreys at the start of last month and they enjoy a 100pc winning record at home this season.
Zebre have picked up three of their four league points so far in the Pro12 in the last two games, gaining two points in their defeat to Ulster and another losing bonus point at home to Cardiff Blues.
LEINSTER – I Nacewa; A Conway, G D'Arcy, A Goodman, F McFadden; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, S Cronin, M Bent;L Cullen,D Browne; K McLaughlin, R Ruddock, S O'Brien. Reps: A Dundon, C Healy, M Ross, T Denton, J Murphy, I Boss, I Madigan, F Carr.
ZEBRE – R Trevisan; L Sarto, G Garcia, M Pratichetti, S Sinoti; D Halangahu,T Tebaldi; M Aguero, C Festuccia, D Ryan; Q Geldenhuys, J Sole; N Cattina, M Bergamasco, F Cristiano. Reps: D Giazzon, A de Marchi,C Fazzari, E Caffini, N Belardo, A Chillon, D Odiete, P Buso.
Ref – A McMenenmy (SRU)
Leinster v Zebre,
Live, RTE2, 6.0