Saturday 21 April 2018

Sean O'Brien can help Leinster pick up where they left off

Sean O'Brien will captain the Leinster side for their opening game of the Pro12 season against Glasgow Warriors. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Sean O'Brien will captain the Leinster side for their opening game of the Pro12 season against Glasgow Warriors. Photo: Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Undoubtedly the game of the weekend, this meeting of the two best teams last season, refereed by the league's strongest referee, should get things under way in style at Scotstoun.

It's almost unfortunate that the clash between last year's finalists comes so early, with neither likely to be anywhere near full pitch this evening.

Still, while the execution will be a little less than perfect, the blood should be up for the home side, who will have stewed over their 34-12 routing at the RDS last May.

That day Gregor Townsend's men learned just how much ground they must still make up to the league's top dogs, who were a different class, putting in the best performance of the Matt O'Connor era to date.

Now, both sides are back at the start-line with a summer under their belts and this first hit-out should shake any cobwebs off quickly enough.

Traditionally slow starters, Leinster can boast an unusually high number of first-choice players this week, with the likes of Cian Healy and Sean O'Brien given the summer off.

Last season's opening-day win over the Scarlets was the Blues' first since the 2007 season, but O'Connor has named an imposing line-up.

O'Brien captains the side from No 8 and he, Healy and Sean Cronin will look to get their side on the front foot from the off in a pack containing six Ireland internationals.

Behind the scrum, Jimmy Gopperth starts the season as he finished last - in the No10 jersey - and he partners the province's latest centurion Isaac Boss.

Brendan Macken gets the first go at outside-centre in the post-Brian O'Driscoll era; he plays alongside Noel Reid, who will be hoping to build on his breakthrough season which culminated in a cap in Argentina.

Up against them is a Glasgow midfield of Alex Dunbar and Mark Bennett as James Downey is not given a chance against his native province.

Townsend keeps Lion Stuart Hogg on the bench alongside Niko Matawalu and that duo will inject some pace to punish tired bodies during the second half.

Up front, Euan Murray is no longer the force of old, but Jonny Gray is Scottish rugby's coming man and captain Josh Strauss is a dynamic ball-carrier in a well-balanced back-row.

With Nigel Owens in the middle, the game should be allowed to flow nicely and with the Scotstoun venue attracting more and more new fans on the back of Glasgow's recent rise, it can be an intimidating place to visit.

O'Connor pinpointed his side's need for accuracy and physicality in his pre-match comments, noting the fact that the Warriors would have a point to prove after the final result.

They will be under less pressure as they were that day when they brought a large travelling support to Dublin and billed the game as the biggest in their history.

Certainly, they are a club on the up and a team who fear nobody as they get stuck in around ruck time and are not afraid to try things behind the scrum.

Leinster blew off the cobwebs in a tough final pre-season game against Ulster last weekend, but the amount of players used by the coaches indicated how little that result meant in the greater scheme of things.

Click

There is a need for things to click at Leinster, however.

The fixture computer has not been kind to O'Connor, with two interpros in the first five games and no Italian side on the agenda until round six.

While they did their damage during the international windows last year, they won't want to play catch-up, given the introduction of European qualification this season and the expected knock-on effect it will have on the standard.

Laying down an early marker in a game being televised on Sky will be on the agenda with the Welsh watching on.

Leinster look well poised to do just that, with Dominic Ryan, Shane Jennings and O'Brien well capable of winning the battle at the breakdown, the all-Irish front-row able to dominate the set-piece and Gopperth ready and waiting to dictate the play.

Zane Kirchner made hay in the final and will fancy another crack at the Glasgow defence and there is a real sense that this game is there to be won.

Doing so would send out a strong message that the champions are intent on staying top of the pile.

Verdict: Leinster

Glasgow Warriors: P Murchie; T Seymour, M Bennett, A Dunbar, L Jones; P Horne, H Pyrgos; A Allen, F Brown, E Murray; L Nakarawa, J Gray; R Harley, C Fusaro, J Strauss. Reps: P MacArthur, G Reid, R de Klerk, T Swinson, A Ashe, N Matawalu, S Hogg, S Lamont.

Leinster: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, B Macken, N Reid, D Fanning; J Gopperth, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; B Marshall, M McCarthy; D Ryan, S Jennings, S O'Brien. Reps: B Byrne, J McGrath, T Furlong, T Denton, K McLaughlin, L McGrath, I Madigan, M McGrath.

Referee: N Owens (WRU).

Glasgow Warriors v Leinster, Live, Sky Sports 1, 5.15

Irish Independent

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