Monday 18 December 2017

Time for the real Leinster to stand up and show their European pedigree or risk losing aura altogether

Matt O'Connor has recalled his Ireland stars to the Leinster line-up for their clash with Bath, including captain Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Matt O'Connor has recalled his Ireland stars to the Leinster line-up for their clash with Bath, including captain Jamie Heaslip. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Today is the day when we find out where Leinster truly stand under Matt O'Connor. The three-time champions are Ireland's last men standing in the Champions Cup, but they stumbled into this home quarter-final against Bath and the ground beneath them keeps shifting.

Due to the reduced lead-in time, they face the dangerous English side with a team that hasn't played together in 12 weeks and a host of players still coming down from the high of winning the Six Nations.

While their frontliners were off dominating the international scene, those left behind endured a miserable spring, with a solitary win over Zebre their only success during a worrying period for the up and comers.

A year ago, they beat Munster in the corresponding weekend, before travelling to Toulon where they were blown out of the water in the Stade Felix Mayol on a day when the balance of European power emphatically shifted from Dublin 4 to the Cote d'Azur.

Bath are no Toulon and playing in front of their home fans is a considerable advantage at a stage where historically 75pc of home teams win, while the Six Nations heroes have eight weeks of intense rugby under their belts, something that should ensure they are at the right pitch even if the cohesion isn't. O'Connor has recalled his Ireland stars to the starting line-up, with Rob Kearney back at full-back, Jordi Murphy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip in the back-row, Devin Toner restored to the second-row and, perhaps most surprisingly, Mike Ross wearing the No3 jersey despite being dropped entirely for the pivotal pool deciders.

It is a redemptive selection for the 34-year-old Corkman who never took a backwards step during the Six Nations, but it's hard on rising star Tadhg Furlong who misses out.

So does Dave Kearney who is the odd man out in the back three conundrum as Ben Te'o's selection as a game-breaker in the Leinster midfield means Luke Fitzgerald plays on the left wing with Fergus McFadden opposite. Zane Kirchner gets the nod on the bench.

The back-row make-up rewards Ireland form, with Dominic Ryan's place among the replacements ahead of the retiring Shane Jennings a recognition of the younger man's stellar season.

Bath have gone with their strongest team, with Mike Ford resisting the urge to break up his exciting centre partnership of Kyle Eastmond and Jonathan Joseph, with rugby league convert Sam Burgess making do with a place on the bench alongside Munster legend Peter Stringer.

They come with little to lose and even less fear after storming Toulouse in swash-buckling style back in January,

However, they'll find the waters a little choppier in the knockout stages and beyond their quartet of quality England internationals, Springbok Francois Louw and Welsh prop Paul James, their starting XV lacks the class of a Leinster side littered with big names.

The problem for O'Connor this season is turning those big internationals into a cohesive provincial unit. Too often, Leinster's attack has been stale, while their defence has been leakier than ever.

They should have enough for a Bath team on an upward curve, but not yet at the top level and they'll need to perform to show they can go any further.

Verdict: Leinster

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