Wednesday 20 September 2017

With Six Nations approaching, Leinster’s ‘guaranteed Irish’ policy is particularly timely

LAST year it was 'Rhapsody in Blue' as Leinster stormed their way to their second Heineken Cup title, but as 2012 cranks into gear, everything has gone green.

The issue of overseas players in Irish rugby is the underlying theme for the foreseeable future, particularly with the Six Nations looming, and if the primary purpose of the provinces is to aid the national cause, Leinster can feel particularly proud of their contribution.

Since Joe Schmidt took over the province at the start of last season, the New Zealander has done tremendous work, both in driving his squad on from the Michael Cheika era and in promoting the cause of the national side.

This, of course, is the main reason why Leinster are questioning the IRFU's need to change the existing system, although, to add to the intricacies of the debate, it also strengthens the IRFU's case for focusing on home-grown talent

Either way, Schmidt has established a style of play that provides the ideal template for Ireland while infusing his players with a verve and confidence that deserves to be reproduced in the international arena.

Leinster supplied nine of the side that started the seminal World Cup win over Australia, and their progress in league and cup this campaign has been forged on a guaranteed Irish policy.

Ireland's scrum, for so long an area of vulnerability, has undergone a marked, Leinster-driven improvement as the province has supplied both first-choice props -- Cian Healy and Mike Ross -- in addition to the scrummaging expertise of coach Greg Feek.

It has been claimed that, after sitting on the bench behind overseas tight-heads CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright in Cheika's final year, Ross only came through when Wright suffered a serious early-season injury in 2010.

However, Schmidt's admiration for Ross dated back to his time with Clermont, while Feek was immediately won over and, following Leinster's scrum implosion against Toulouse in the 2010 Heineken Cup semi-final, Ross was going to start whether Wright was available or not.

Under Schmidt, the overseas players have generally complemented rather than obstructed Irish imperatives (with the exception of Jamie Hagan's failure to force his way past Nathan White) and, after starting an all-Irish XV for the Pro12 win against Cardiff last weekend, there are 14 Irishmen in the team to take on Glasgow in the Heineken Cup at Firhill tomorrow.

This is not being done to suit IRFU directives, it is a reflection of where the talent lies in the squad as only Isa Nacewa is included for a match which should ensure Leinster's progress to the quarter-finals (Leinster's objections to the viability of the IRFU plan have been well articulated, as have Munster's).

There are also differing opinions on how much knowledge Leinster and Munster had of Ruan Pienaar's contract extension with Ulster this week, which falls under the new directives, although both squads are well catered for in terms of indigenous scrum-halves.

Anyway, whatever is bubbling under the surface, the bottom line is that Leinster are doing their bit for Ireland's bid to kick on from their World Cup disappointment, and the selection for tomorrow looks more than capable of booking their last-eight berth with some style.

The absence of Luke Fitzgerald is the one negative. Sensational against Bath at Lansdowne Road in December, Fitzgerald has been ruled out with a neck injury, with the hope that close monitoring will see him recover in time for the final pool match against Montpellier next weekend and subsequent international duty.

Richardt Strauss is another absentee, having sustained a blow to the jaw, but the likelihood is that Sean Cronin (the member of the 'Connacht Four' to benefit most from moving on) would have started at hooker in any case. Aaron Dundon comes onto the bench.

Jonathan Sexton and Gordon D'Arcy were both cleared to play, having picked up knocks in the win over Cardiff last weekend, while Devin Toner packs down in the second-row next to captain Leo Cullen, leaving no room in the match-23 for South African Steven Sykes.

Toner will be tasked with man-marking Glasgow's own beanpole, Richie Gray, at line-out time.

A big game against Gray would do Toner's international aspirations no harm at all, while Dave Kearney has been rewarded for his good form with his first Heineken Cup start on the right wing in place of Fitzgerald.

Glasgow are a decent outfit and, roared on by a full-house Firhill, will seek to break up the game and prevent Leinster from gathering the fluency they showed last time out against Bath.

John Barclay has a huge role in this regard, and Schmidt has selected an established, natural open-side in Shane Jennings to go up against him. This has the added benefit of freeing up Sean O'Brien for greater ball-carrying responsibilities, which is bad news for the home side -- as is Jamie Heaslip's current streak of form.

The Glasgow backline looks somewhat pedestrian compared to Leinster's, although Rory Lamont can do damage from full-back, and they are likely to depend primarily on the accurate boot of out-half Duncan Weir for their scores.

Glasgow go into the clash with the type of devil-may-care attitude that makes them dangerous, knowing they are out-gunned but relishing the chance to have a crack off the champions.

"This is the sort of game you work in rugby to be involved in," said head coach Sean Lineen.

"What a challenge we've got ahead of us, against a side who have set new standards for the rest of Europe in what they do at the contact area and how many good decisions they make right across the park.

"We'll be doing everything we possibly can to achieve something truly special, this is what it is all about."

It could be dogged enough for the first two-thirds, but Leinster have sufficient quality, incorporating a powerful bench, to pull away in the final 25 minutes.

Given Leinster's green hue, a convincing victory would provide the perfect backdrop to next week's Six Nations squad announcement -- the flip side is that, were Leinster to suffer a shock defeat, the Ireland situation would, by association, start to look a little off-colour.

Verdict: Leinster

GLASGOW WARRIORS - R Lamont; T Seymour, S Hogg, G Morrison, C Shaw; D Weir, C Cusiter; J Welsh, P MacArthur, E Kalman; R Gray, A Kellock (capt), R Harley, C Fusaro, J Barclay. Reps: D Hall, G Reid, R Grant, T Ryder, J Beattie, C Gregor, T Nathan, S Wight

LEINSTER - R Kearney; D Kearney, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), D Toner; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: A Dundon, H Van der Merwe, N White, D Browne, R Ruddock, I Boss, I Madigan, E O'Malley

REF -- N Owens (Wales)

Glasgow v Leinster,

Live, Sky Sports 2, tomorrow, 12.45

Irish Independent

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