Wednesday 13 December 2017

Leinster counting on Aviva roar to drive them to Champions Cup victory

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THE LAST time Bath arrived at the Aviva Stadium, they and Leinster were in very different shape to where they are today.

Joe Schmidt side ran up a half-a-century of points on that cold December day against the one-time champions of Europe, extending their unbeaten run at the still-new stadium to six in a row.

A year later, Clermont Auvergne shattered the champions 100pc record at their second home and since that day they have been on shaky ground at the national stadium.

Northampton Saints and Munster have both won well at Lansdowne Road, while Harlequins were unfortunate not to leave with something last December.

Home advantage may be one of sport's great intangibles, but the statistics would suggest it is vitally important at this stage of the European season.

"The research indicates that you got to be at home in the quarter-final," Leinster coach Matt O'Connor said earlier this season.

"The chances of winning quarters when you are at home is significantly different than when you are away. We found that out last year.

"We didn't lose a game away from home in the Pool stages but ended up in Toulon in the quarters."

During Heineken Cup history, three out of every four quarter-finals were won by the home teams and this weekend the bookies have installed all the host teams as heavy favourites.

Of the four, Leinster are the only side to have risked moving their game from their traditional home ground to a larger venue with the revenue- generating capacity of the Aviva Stadium too hard to turn down.

Leinster fans at a match in the Aviva Stadium
Leinster fans at a match in the Aviva Stadium

With almost 40,000 tickets already sold, that commercial decision has been rewarded handsomely but the fear is that leaving the familiar confines of the RDS will remove the fear factor against a Bath side whose best players played at the stadium a few weeks back with England.

There may be just a kilometre between the two venues, but they are a world apart in terms of facilities and that can suit the away team.

For all the criticism of O'Connor's time in charge, the Australian has overseen an excellent RDS record only besmirched by the shock defeat to Dragons during the Six Nations.

His players have spoken about how they prefer the bigger stage at Lansdowne Road, but while the fast track should make for a good game the larger crowd, swelled with more walk-ups and casual spectators, can dilute any sense of an intimidating home crowd.

"I really enjoy playing in the RDS, but when we move to the Aviva it goes up a notch," Ian Madigan said this week. "We'll have close to 50,000 people there, it's a really fast track and a big pitch. So, it suits both teams to put on a good game."

Whether it will have an impact remains to be seen.

"We'll wait and see," former captain and current forwards' coach Leo Cullen said in his usual understated way.

"Listen, we hope it is a great occasion. To have a quarter-final at home we hope the supporters come out with great voice on the day because we hope it is going to be a great occasion.

"The competition is new but there has been a lot more about the competition this year. You have four English teams, three French teams and we're sort of flying the flag for the Guinness Pro 12.

"It is a big occasion for us as a club. It's such a short lead -in, break week, semi-final, break week, final. We need a huge performance because at the moment every game is the biggest game for us.

"I really hope the supporters get behind the team like they have. They make these occasions. We have been lucky over the last number of years, we've had some really good days and they are made spectacular by the supporters turning out and that is what the team needs.

"We hope we can provide a performance that is worthy of them turning up to pay the money to watch us play because it means a huge amount to us.

"In many ways it's been the main thing on my mind since we played Wasps. A 20-all draw and you're watching the weekend's games, will we be at home, will we be away? As things panned out we get a home draw and we're in this situation against Bath.

"It has been on my mind for a long time, the game. I know talking to some of the players how much it means to them going into this occasion as well.

"Listen, hopefully we can put on a big performance. There are always factors, trying to reintegrate everybody. Everyone is coming back over the next couple of days and hopefully we will be in good shape by the time the game comes around."

Bath might not have Leinster's recent European pedigree, but this season they have been one of the competition's most impressive performers on the road.

Although they lost to Glasgow at Scotstoun in their opening fixture, victories at Montpellier and Toulouse helped them out of a tight spot in a strong pool.

Their performance at the Stade Ernest Wallon was a particular statement of their intent, with Jonathan Joseph leading the charge in a brilliant attacking display that signalled that the Premiership team have no fear of going away from home and performing.

While the statistics favour Matt O'Connor's team he is not losing focus on the challenge at hand.

"There is nothing apart from Bath that's distracting anyone from the task at hand," O'Connor concluded.

"We've got an opportunity to be at home in a quarter-final and if we can deliver a performance then we're still in the competition and we're going away in a semi-final.

"We've everything to play for, there is no point getting distracted by what has or might happen, it's very tangible - this weekend, at home against a very good Bath side.

"We just have to make sure we're good enough."

In the week where the Irish football fans found their voice at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster will be hoping for similar backing on Saturday in order to make home advantage count.

Irish Independent

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