Saturday 24 March 2018

Madigan given the chance to nail down No 10 spot down

Gopperth benched as Leinster look to find form

Leinster coach Matt O’Connor and Ian Madigan talk tactics during squad training session in UCD this week
Leinster coach Matt O’Connor and Ian Madigan talk tactics during squad training session in UCD this week
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

HAVING spent a week licking their wounds after Saturday's humbling at the hands of Munster, the champions take to Parma to right some wrongs.

Matt O'Connor must wish the derby had been a week later considering the improvement in players available to him today as he makes a host of changes and recalls some big names.

That's if the Australian's team-sheet is to be believed, of course, with late changes now a regular part of Leinster's fixtures.

On paper, it is a stronger squad of 23, although Jamie Heaslip and Devin Toner drop to the bench.

The most eye-catching switch is the restoration of Ian Madigan to the No 10 jersey at last as the Blackrock tyro concludes his tour of the backline by returning to his best position.


Madigan has done well at centre and showed his versatility at full-back last weekend, but Jimmy Gopperth has struggled so far this season and O'Connor needs more from the playmaking position if his side are to find their form ahead of the European kick-off at home to Wasps next week.

Outside him, he'll have Noel Reid for company as the youngster makes his return after a long lay-off and partners Gordon D'Arcy in midfield, with Zane Kirchner and Rob Kearney adding threat and experience out wide. How the coach must wish he'd had these options available for the interpro.

That game was lost in the tight exchanges, however, where Leinster were out-muscled as critical junctures of the game.

O'Connor maintains that Munster didn't play that well, while his captain Heaslip says he feels the champions showed glimpses of what they can do but they'll need much more than that in the coming weeks if they are to top a manageable European pool.

An all-new front-row will help, with Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Marty Moore offering dynamism and scrum solidity.

Despite assurances to the contrary, Mike Ross doesn't make it after going off injured last weekend, but Tadhg Furlong showed his class in his short cameo last weekend.

Behind them, Kane Douglas partners Mike McCarthy in an impactful second-row, but the back-row is lacking experience, with Rhys Ruddock joined by No 8 Jack Conan and the highly rated UCD openside Josh van der Flier, who makes his debut.

They'll face a Zebre side coming into a third successive home game and riding high on confidence,.

They were inches away from backing up their win over Ulster by beating the Ospreys and name 13 Italy internationals in their match-day 23.

"We have had tough games over there," manager Guy Easterby recalled.

"Last year, we only got the bonus point with the last play of the game. It was the same in the RDS, there might only have been eight points in it at half-time.

"They just lost to the Ospreys on the weekend, a little bit unluckily. It is a clear indication of how they are going about their business in beating Ulster and gave us a warning.

"They're improving. They're relatively new to the competition and it takes time (to get up to speed).

"I definitely think they're gaining in confidence, especially at home. This is their third home game in a row and they are getting into a nice rhythm; that means a major challenge for us going over there."

It still should be a challenge Leinster can handle and they will want a response after last week's struggles.

Two from five so far, they'll want to at least break even from the opening six league games before focusing their attention on Europe.

Zebre will have watched how Munster got the edge around the fringes and the Italians won't be afraid to try their luck with the pick and goes.

They'll also look to test Leinster's numbers in the ruck after they failed to commit men to that pivotal area last weekend.

Brendon Leonard's absence deprives the Parma side of some much-needed guile and experience behind the scrum, however, and it is hard to imagine Leinster being as passive this time around.

There will be concerns over the sharpness of some of those returning, but much will depend on Madigan's ability to rise to the challenge.

Although he has his fans in the centre, he is more than capable of running a game from his natural home in the No 10 shirt and should create space for those outside him with his slick passing game and eye for space.

With Reid able to play as a second distributor and D'Arcy profiting from the extra space of the No 13 channel, there is a nice balance about Leinster's backline.

Conditions are set to be poor, but the visiting pack has enough bite to cope with a dog-fight.

This should set them on the right track as Europe looms.

Verdict: Leinster

ZEBRE - D Odiete; G Toniolatti, T Iannone, G Garcia, L Sarto; E Padovani, G Palazzani; M Aguero, A Manici, D Chistolini; Q Geldenhuys, M Bortolami (capt); M Bergamasco, F Cristiano, S Vunisa. Reps: O Fabiani, A Lovotti, L Leibson, A Ferreira, V Bernabo, L Orquera, K Haimona, G Biagi.

LEINSTER - R Kearney (capt); Z Kirchner, G D'Arcy, N Reid, D Fanning; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Moore; M McCarthy, K Douglas; R Ruddock, J van der Flier, J Conan. Reps: B Byrne, E Byrne, T Furlong, D Toner, J Heaslip, L McGrath, J Gopperth, M McGrath.

Ref - N Paterson (Scotland)

Provinces get prime time home European slots

Fans of Leinster, Munster and Ulster can finally make their preparations for the December European games after the organisers and broadcasters finalised the schedule for the pivotal back-to-back pre-Christmas pool games.

All three have been boosted with plum kick-off times for their bumper home game, but their travelling fans will be cursing the fact that they will play the away legs on Sundays.

Leinster, in particular, will not be happy at being handed a third Sunday game in a row as they travel to London to face Harlequins, but the return fixture at the Aviva Stadium will kick off at 7.45 on Saturday, December 13.

A week previous, Ulster have that slot for their meeting with the Scarlets, while Munster have an early evening kick-off (5.30) as they welcome Les Jaunards to Thomond Park.

Connacht fans will learn of their Challenge Cup schedule on Monday.

Champions Cup ROUND 3

Friday, DECEMBER 5

Montpellier v Bath, 7.45 (BT);

Saturday, DECEMBER 6

Sale v Saracens, 1.0 (Sky); Treviso v Northampton, 1.0 (Sky); Ospreys v Racing Metro, 3.15 (Sky); Munster v Clermont, 5.30 (Sky); Ulster v Scarlets, 7.45 (BT)

Sunday, DECEMBER 7

Castres v Wasps, 1.0 (Sky); Harlequins v Leinster, 3.15 (BT); Toulouse v Glasgow, 3.15 (BT); Leicester v Toulon, 5.30 (BT)


Friday, DECEMBER 12

Bath v Montpellier, 7.45 (BT);

Saturday, DECEMBER 13

Glasgow v Toulouse, 1.0 (Sky); Northampton v Treviso, 3.15 (BT); Toulon v Leicester, 3.15 (BT); Saracens v Sale, 5.15 (Sky); Racing Metro v Ospreys, 5.15 (Sky); Leinster v Harlequins, 7.45 (BT); Wasps v Castres, 1.0 (Sky); Clermont v Munster, 3.15 (Sky); Scarlets v Ulster, 5.15 (BT)

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