Leinster need their entire repertoire -- and a bit of luck
Matt O'Connor has got his selections right for what will be a cagey affair, says Jim Glennon
In normal circumstances, the January games are those that really define a season's Heineken Cup, bringing out the best in the competition and in all of its participants.
This season, however, the ongoing machinations are such that the performances of the largely-unknown Peter Boyle and Philip Browne and their colleagues in that arena will have a much greater bearing on this great competition. Understandably, the tournament has lost some of its lustre as a result but over this and next weekend at least the levels of on-field intensity, excitement and entertainment will be as high as ever.
Leinster are in Castres today acutely aware that a third win on the road will put them in a very strong position. Indeed, were Northampton to lose on their travels in Swansea today, by no means out of the question, then a Leinster win would seal qualification a week early, leaving Matt O'Connor and his team to battle it out for ranking places in the final game against old foes Ospreys.
Leinster supporters will remember that they were badly stung on a previous visit to Stade Pierre Antoine in 2008 in what turned out to be a seminal moment en route to the province's first tournament victory; 'stung' more than most was Johnny Sexton, as a result of Michael Cheika's controversial call to replace him with a patently less than 100 per cent fit Felipe Contepomi early in the second half -- a watershed event in the team's evolution, and in Sexton's career too.
Much of the media focus over the past fortnight has been centred around Seán O'Brien -- with his injury troubles and his contract negotiations -- and his absence will certainly be felt in the south of France today, whatever about his possible future relationship with that part of the world.
These are the days a player like him lives for but it has to be said that the impact of his injury lay-off to date has been somewhat softened by the outstanding progress of Jordi Murphy. He has been emerging gradually but his performances in the last couple of weeks, particularly in the RDS against Ulster, have been quite outstanding. Today will be another step up for him, in physicality particularly, but I believe he'll relish the challenge to the extent of applying further pressure on Joe Schmidt for inclusion in his Ireland squad.
As is always the case in France, the scrum is certain to have a major bearing on the course this match takes. From a Leinster point of view, it will be particularly interesting given the emergence of Martin Moore this season. In recent times he has often excelled and looked dominant when Mike Ross has struggled, and although Ross starts today, the timing of Moore's introduction from the bench will be fascinating.
On the other side, Jack McGrath's continued good form in the absence of Cian Healy is also encouraging. However, notwithstanding the quality of Seán Cronin's play, the recent injury concerns around reserve hooker Aaron Dundon are worrying.
The halfback combination was an area of consistent and highly-effective rotation for Joe Schmidt's Leinster, particularly on the road. O'Connor's selections have been similarly varied in this area, but it strikes me that it has been more out of competition for places than rotation for the sake of it.
I believe he has chosen the right man at outhalf for the day that's in it. This game has the potential to be a cagey affair and while Ian Madigan is, statistically at least, the more accurate kicker from the placed-ball over the course of the season, Jimmy Gopperth's all-round game is the better option to start. The initial back-three selection for last week's trip to Galway was Luke Fitzgerald and Zane Kirchner on the wings with Rob Kearney at fullback. Since his arrival from South
Africa, the Springbok has been used relatively sparingly but he does provide a powerful option from the bench. Offensively excellent, Dave Kearney can't afford to be exposed defensively as he was on more than one occasion by Ulster, while Fitzgerald is up there with the best performing backs in Ireland at present, looking close to his best after an injury-riven four years. Whichever combination O'Connor selected, a powerful counter-attacking force was guaranteed; those doubts linger however in the defensive context.
Ultimately, these are the days on which O'Connor will be judged as coach of what has been Europe's foremost team of the past five years. Their opponents, however, are the French champions and currently sit third behind Clermont and Stade Francais. A win today would put them in a position to mount a late challenge for a quarter-final place.
Leinster undoubtedly have the ability and experience to get the job done and showed against Connacht a capacity to dog it out when required. They may well need their entire repertoire, and a bit of luck too.