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Leinster fear bite of the underdog

LEINSTER have travelled a considerable distance since their last shock Heineken Cup defeat on Scottish soil.

Indeed, that December 2007 loss to Edinburgh before a hollow Murrayfield attendance of barely 3,000 has since been seen as a watershed moment in the evolution of the province. Leinster, despite fielding a team of 14 internationals (flanker Stephen Keogh was the exception), flopped spectacularly against Andy Robinson's side made up of a smattering of internationals and well-intentioned journeymen like Matt Mustchin and Ben Gissing.

Yet, they dismissed Leinster 29-10, adding to the 'chokers' tag that hung from the Irish province's neck at that time. Towards the end of the game, the beleaguered travelling support tried vainly to rouse their troops with a rendition of 'Molly Malone' but the lusty bellowing of "Alive, Alive-O" could not alter the fact that Leinster's Heineken Cup was dead for another season.

There will be several survivors from that day in Leinster's match-squad to face Glasgow in Firhill on Sunday.

Gordon D'Arcy (hoping to be fit for the weekend) was in the centre, Rob Kearney was on the wing, Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip were in pack, while Luke Fitzgerald, Jonathan Sexton and Cian Healy all featured off the bench.

Guy Easterby played scrum-half inside Felipe Contepomi in that defeat and this week the Leinster manager was wary of the threat posed by their latest trip to Scotland.

"It is a huge game for us," said Easterby. "It is massive and they are going into it off a loss to the Scarlets. We also realise we are going to have to really up our game. It is Europe. Glasgow, in fairness to them, are playing very well at Firhill.

"They are a really difficult proposition there. Our minds will be focused solely on Glasgow. We are going to have to prepare very well. It won't be easy over there."

Glasgow, although dismissed at the RDS in November when they were without several of their front-liners, are a decent outfit and Firhill will undoubtedly provide a fierier atmosphere than Murrayfield in 2007 (although this could prove less discomfiting than playing in that Edinburgh void).

Their Pro12 progress has been extremely encouraging, seven wins from 13 outings pushing Glasgow into the top four play-off positions, with their defeat away to the Scarlets last weekend ending an unbeaten run that stretched back to September.

In Europe, Sean Lineen's side have beaten Bath and Montpellier at home, and, like Leinster, managed a very credible draw in Montpellier. Facing a vulnerable Bath in their final pool fixture at the Rec will not intimidate Glasgow and they are desperate to go into that encounter with a win to give them an outside shot at qualification, for the Challenge Cup at least.

However, in keeping with Easterby's words of caution, there will be no complacency among the visitors as Leinster have made it their mission this season not to fall back on the standards they set on their spectacular surge to last year's title.

After dogging out a victory in Bath in the first of their back-to-back encounters in December, Leinster were sensational at Lansdowne Road in the return match, instantly making them the team to beat as they seek to become only the second side to retain the title, after Leicester in 2001 and 2002.

While Joe Schmidt's side has forged a reputation for attacking inventiveness and looked threatening every time they ran the ball in the thumping of Bath, conditions may mitigate against free-flowing football on Sunday.

Firhill has a Sportsground-like reputation for wind and rain and, with temperatures predicted to be around four degrees, it could be a day for keeping it up the jumper.

The Warriors have several players who could hurt Leinster (see panel) although tight-head prop Moray Low is a big loss.

Schmidt has enjoyed considerable success in picking specific away-day teams based around physical presence before reverting to a more mobile line-up for home games.

This approach could influence tomorrow's selection in favour of the likes of Heinke van der Merwe and Isaac Boss and, while Cian Healy and Eoin Reddan are certainties for the Six Nations, the impending squad announcement means all of this weekend's Heineken Cup fixtures have extra significance for the province's Irish contingent.

Eoin O'Malley and Fergus McFadden will be desperate for the opportunity to impress Ireland coach Declan Kidney in midfield, as will Luke Fitzgerald, back to his best having missed out on World Cup selection last year.

Devin Toner will also want to make an impression. Following the departure of Nathan Hines to France, Toner has been playing well this season in the second-row and would be a logical threat to combat the line-out threat of the 6'9" Richie Gray.

For all the improvements Glasgow have made in recent times and Leinster's history of Scottish upsets (they also lost a Heineken Cup match in Edinburgh in 2006), the champions' progress to the quarter-finals and semi-finals seems inexorable and it is very hard to see them slipping up on Sunday, whatever the conditions.

That 2007 defeat in Edinburgh has not been forgotten but another Leinster shock in Scotland would require a trip back in time of Brigadoon proportions.

Irish Independent