Cheika eyes Leinster power play
WITH Leinster well on track for a home play-off in the Magners League and a Heineken Cup semi-final in Toulouse to negotiate in two weeks' time, coach Michael Cheika could have opted to rest a clutch of front-line performers for tonight's league clash with the Ospreys at the RDS.
Instead, the Australian has picked a powerful side featuring 10 of the men who started Leinster's epic European quarter-final win over Clermont last week. The five changes are injured trio Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Jonathan Sexton and overseas props Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde, with Cian Healy and Mike Ross getting a chance to lay down a marker ahead of Ireland's summer tour.
Shaun Berne starts at out-half in place of Sexton and the Australian's performance will be watched closely as he could fill the same role if Sexton doesn't recover from his broken jaw in time for Toulouse. Fergus McFadden, who fills in for O'Driscoll at outside centre tonight, would be expected to be accommodated somewhere in the backline for that semi-final if Sexton is ruled out, as his place-kicking and all-round play have been impressive this season.
Girvan Dempsey slots in at full-back in Kearney's absence, which means there are 10 Irish internationals in the side as well as Scottish and Fijian internationals in the form of second-row Nathan Hines and winger Isa Nacewa.
No let-up for the Ospreys then, who face their third game in six days after bouncing back from their Heineken Cup loss to Biarritz last Saturday with a 38-27 win over Ulster at Ravenhill on Tuesday night. That bonus-point win was aided by the home side's ineptitude, while sympathy for the Ospreys' hectic schedule is tempered by the fact it was of their own doing after they failed to fulfil the postponed fixture, originally rearranged for last month.
The Ospreys face a hearing on that matter next Monday, but what it has meant is a mini tour to Ireland, with the Welsh outfit based for the week in a hotel outside Belfast, and No 8 Filo Tiatia (part of an all-All Blacks back row tonight alongside Marty Holah and captain Jerry Collins) says morale is high.
"The extra preparation time together certainly helps," said Tiatia. "You saw a pretty gritty team performance on Tuesday night and that's what we are going to need against Leinster as well."
The Ospreys start eight of the side that downed Ulster, resting Tommy Bowe, James Hook and Mike Phillips as well as regular No 8 and captain Ryan Jones.
It is still an extremely potent unit, but Leinster are unbeaten in the league at the RDS since Munster won there in September 2008 (13 matches) and have won their last dozen games in all competitions.
With a host of attacking talent on display, this meeting between the league's top two has the makings of a cracking contest. The Ospreys have Lee Byrne and Shane Williams to attack from deep while Leinster will look to McFadden, Gordon D'Arcy and Nacewa for their running threat out wide.
Healy and Ross need big games at scrum time with Adam Jones a good test for the Leinster loose-head, while the battle between Leinster's Ireland back-row of Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip and their New Zealand counterparts promises to be compelling viewing.
The home side have the forwards to get set-piece and breakdown parity (at least) and the backline to exploit it, but a huge amount hinges on the performance of Berne at 10. Cheika will look for an improved penalty count from the Clermont match while, for all the French side's mesmerising attacking talents, the concession of three tries to Julien Malzieu last week will have raised the ire of defence coach Kurt McQuilkin.
There are arguments for both sides in what should be a close affair but Cheika has made a strong statement with this selection and it should be enough to garner another home win.
LEINSTER -- G Dempsey; S Horgan, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, Isa Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; C Healy, J Fogarty, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Replacements from: R Strauss, S Wright, M O'Kelly, Stephen Keogh, P O'Donohoe, E O'Malley, A Conway, Simon Keogh.
OSPREYS -- L Byrne; N Walker, S Parker, A Bishop, S Williams; D Biggar, J Nutbrown; P James, E Shervington, A Jones; I Gough, A-W Jones; J Collins (capt), M Holah, F Tiatia. Replacements: S Baldwin, C Mitchell, I Evans, R Jones, M Phillips, J Hook, G Owen.
REF -- P Allan (Scotland).
Leinster v Ospreys
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