Brent Pope: Blues must keep Wasps on move
FEWER teams, tougher groups and far less wriggle room than in other years, this year's inaugural European Champions Cup looks even harder to win than ever.
Irish teams have traditionally excelled in this competition, being the most consistent country by far despite their scant playing numbers.
With the English and French now flexing their financial muscle. Much has changed and it will be fascinating to see how the Irish teams fare this year.
The Irish provinces are up against the big physical packs of England and the even bigger budgets of the French while very much in transitional mode themselves.
Leinster, like their opponents this Sunday Wasps (RDS Arena, 5.15), go into week one of the new competition in a rather precarious position.
They are practically missing an entire team through injury, including players like Cian Healy, Seán O'Brien, Luke Fitzgerald, Fergus McFadden and others, players who in the past have been key to Leinster's success.
Add in the absence or retirement of world class players like Jonny Sexton, Ica Nacewa, Leo Cullen and the irreplaceable Brian O Driscoll and Leinster face a tough opener.
Leinster supporters, and probably even their coach Matt O'Connor are still unsure as to what Leinster's best team is, and crucial to that is who will fill the most important decision-making position on the park, outhalf.
Is it perhaps the greater experience and game -management skills of Kiwi import Jimmy Gopperth? Or the mercurial talents and game-breaking ability of Irishman Ian Madigan?
Who starts at outhalf depends on many factors, firstly the conditions, secondly what type of game-plan O'Connor wants to play.
My thoughts are that despite last week's impressive display by Madigan in Italy, O'Connor will persist with New Zealander Gopperth, at least to start the match. Gopperth lacks Madigan's overall dynamism, but he is still an experienced game-manager and a good tactical kicker, it also allows O'Connor to incorporate Madigan at 12 where he can add to the Leinster kicking game further out as well as providing more zip in attack.
More significantly it also forces Wasps to look at their defensive options.
Leinster have been slow to start this season and the secret to a win this weekend is to start this match with a patient, tactical kicking game before upping the tempo when the game breaks up.
Leinster has been guilty this year of trying to do too much too early, forcing passes, forcing offloads etc.
Madigan plays flat and on the gainline and in my mind just like last week becomes increasingly more dangerous when the game becomes disjointed later on, when he makes his greatest impact.
That would indicate to me that O'Connor will start with the Kiwi then look to move Madigan in should the spaces on the park start to appear.
Madigan has to be included, so it makes sense to make just one major positional change this late rather than two, especially with Leinster's injury crisis.
One does have to ask the question, however, if the return of Sexton next year is playing on Copperth's mind, as he needs to rediscover some of last year's gamesmanship.
In all the years of European Rugby one thing has remained fairly constant, teams must win all their home games before the disruptions and injuries of the international season.
Granted, teams have still made it to the knockout stages by losing their first game, but this year's competition is a lot more competitive and the margins much smaller, every bonus point, every try and every point for and against will count.
Lose your first home game and it makes it so much harder to qualify as the pressure just mounts.
Granted Leinster have a little more elbow room than the other Irish teams, especially with fellow group members Castres having a terrible season in the French League and some talk centres on whether or not they will take Europe seriously.
It certainly would not be the first time a French team has concentrated on their domestic competition over Europe.
Wasps come to the Aviva Stadium with a patchy enough start to their own domestic Premiership season. They have appeared very good in parts with impressive results against high flyers Northampton, but then appear inconsistent against lesser teams especially away from home.
But they do possess a healthy number of exciting players and English Internationals.
Like Leinster, Wasps are clearly not at their best, and similar to the Blues are struggling with their confidence - so both teams will see Sunday's clash as an opportunity to kick start their season.
Leinster's game-plan must be to speed up the tempo of the game, kick intelligently early to win back possession, start the game well and eliminate the basic mistakes that have been recently clouding their game.
Wasps coaching team will have watched the latest Munster video and will attack Leinster at the breakdown, in the scrum and in and around the narrow channels of the rucks and mauls where Leinster appear their most vulnerable.
Leinster need to organise their defence in this area far more vigilantly, they need to be quicker and more even in their defensive line speed and also clear the rucks and breakdown area a lot more aggressively than they did against Munster.
Leinster's play functions best on quick ruck ball and moving the bigger English packs around, the home side certainly do not want to get into an arm wrestle with physically bigger teams.
The home side have a history of delivering on the big stage, but they need some of the more inexperienced players to step up.
So Leinster to bounce back from recent average performances with Madigan moving into the talismanic role at outhalf in the second half.
O'Connor's Leinster to win by seven points.