Leinster's opponents need a lot to go right for them on Saturday, says Brendan Fanning
In an exchange of information last week that is typical of this gig -- we give the opposition hacks quotes from Irish players and they reciprocate with Welsh wisdom -- the conversation extended to what Cardiff might throw at Leinster in Lansdowne Road on Saturday.
As it happened, it didn't extend very far.
"I can tell you one thing they'll do in Dublin," said our man across the water. "They'll come second."
Not since Munster were entertaining the Ospreys in 2009 has any team gone into a Heineken Cup quarter-final with such a weight of expectation on their shoulders. You'll remember the Ospreys clocked off early that day as well, suffering to the tune of 41-9.
So here comes another Welsh team, from a country that has never tasted success in Europe's premier competition, walking into the back yard of a little nation who have cornered the market on how to win big in the Heineken Cup.
Over here we don't ask if any of our provinces will win another title in the near future, we ask who will win the race between Munster and Leinster to join Toulouse on the podium reserved for three-time champions. When the Six Nations is in full swing, and none of its momentum is behind Ireland, we wonder why the thrills provided by our provinces end in spills by our national team. We have more Test players than many of our Pool opponents, and we prioritise the competition, are two reasons. But when that Test window has closed we get comfy again in the knowledge that at least one of the big three will deliver.
So who are Cardiff to stand in the way of this stream of traffic, and what have they done? Their defeat in Glasgow on Friday night leaves them seventh in the Pro12, but league form isn't always the best guide when it comes to Europe.
The most interesting thing about that game was coach Gareth Baber's decision to ditch Dan Parks from the 10 position. Baber's reasoning was that if you have a problem you either change your style or change your personnel, and if a raft of territory isn't being translated into points then individual errors are the issue, so individuals pay the price. In opting for Ceri Sweeney, effectively he was covering both style and personnel, and you'd hardly expect him to change tack again for the Leinster game.
So while this makes the Blues a greater running threat, it robs them of Parks' footballing ability. Since arriving two summers ago he has kicked 339 points, which is the sort of stats that attracted Connacht. Now that Leigh Halfpenny is accustomed to frontline kicking for Wales, rather than being summoned only for the long-haul shots, clearly the coach feels freer to make what is a huge call. To succeed against Leinster now he needs Sweeney's running game to be so good as to make a real difference to their attack, while hoping that Halfpenny's stats are in the same class as Parks'. The fullback knocked over 21 points in the game against Racing in January, when he kicked ahead of Parks, and it secured their trip to Dublin.
Interestingly, in the dressing room after that win the players were getting messages of congratulations on their third qualification in five seasons (on top of winning the Amlin in 2010), followed by condolences on having drawn Leinster away. Now they know how the Ospreys felt when going to Thomond Park three years ago.
A key difference between then and now is that unlike the Ospreys of 2009, the Blues of 2012 are on their last lap together. Come summer Richie Rees, Parks, Casey Laulala, Gethin Jenkins and Rhys Thomas will have moved to other clubs. Martyn Williams is retiring, while Paul Tito -- who, worryingly, is still being touted as potentially fit for Saturday -- has had so many issues with concussion at this stage that you wish he would bail out now.
There is speculation that Ben Blair and John Yapp are on their way as well. In theory, the aggregate of all this is that they will want to go out with a bang.
"The players who are leaving want to finish on a high and sign off by winning some silverware," says their forwards coach Justin Burnell. "They really want success; they really want to leave here with a smiling face. They want to know they can walk out having helped the Blues gain more success. It's exciting. Why wouldn't you want to go and watch a game like this?"
Chances are not too many Blues fans will be among that number. Maybe they splashed out on the Wales trip earlier in the year or perhaps they reckon this is a lost cause, but they will be numbered in hundreds rather than thousands in a stadium that at least will be all blue. And does Burnell see it was a wasted journey?
"They've brought in a World Cup-winning lock in Brad Thorn and have got Brian O'Driscoll back," he says of Leinster. "We've got Gethin Jenkins, perhaps the best loose-head in the world, coming back. We've got Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert, Jamie Roberts -- Grand Slam players. We've got Casey Laulala. We've got good players. On our day we can upset anybody. Let's not forget we are the only Welsh region that are in the quarter-finals. We have always had hope. Because we have gone to places and won we have the strong belief that we can go anywhere and win."
It doesn't help that their pals in Ospreylia came here and won only last weekend, for to end a 20-game running streak with successive home defeats by inferior Welsh teams would be a statistical freak for Leinster.
"It was a good reminder," says Jono Gibbes of that Ospreys defeat in the RDS. "I think that may just have been a consequence of trying to gel people back in and where we were but I think playing them was a great reminder. Next weekend we have to bring that or we're going to come second."
Not if Cardiff come second first.
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