Monday 23 April 2018

Matt O'Connor risks domestic bliss for Euro glory

Leinster coach makes 11 changes for Cardiff trip ahead of pivotal Champions Cup ties

Jimmy Gopperth needs a big performance against Cardiff to put his hand up for selection for the Champions Cup clash with Castres
Jimmy Gopperth needs a big performance against Cardiff to put his hand up for selection for the Champions Cup clash with Castres
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

FOR 40 minutes last Saturday, Leinster looked back to their old selves again.

It wasn't perfect, but the second-half display against Ulster suggested that the return of a number of absent friends and the impetus provided by an unheralded young back-row could lift a previously forgettable season from the doldrums.

Having found something that worked, Matt O'Connor has taken the bold step of taking it apart and going again by making 11 changes to the side that started at the RDS for their trip to the Arms Park.

Europe might be the priority, but Leinster are fully aware that winning the Pro12 earned them the kind of pool that they still look likely to qualify from and will take the league lightly at their peril.

Cardiff Blues are a team they rarely have trouble with, a side languishing in the nether regions of the league despite a roster that includes an array of big names.

However, there are signs that the Welsh club might just be getting their act together and they have always been capable of big one-off performances. The arrival of Sky Sports' cameras and the prospect of two weeks in the doldrums of the Challenge Cup might be the thing to get them going.

They have gone full strength, including Puma Joaquin Tuculet at full-back and Lions Alex Cuthbert, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones and Sam Warburton as well as Wales centre Corey Allen and Kiwi import Gareth Anscombe.

While the names on the teamsheet have rarely added up to a stellar team at the Blues, they will look at the Leinster squad list and fancy their chances.

With Jamie Heaslip out with a shoulder injury, Rob Kearney returns to lead the side and is part of a back-three that looks the strongest unit in a makeshift team as he joins his brother Dave and Fergus McFadden.

Elsewhere, it's mix and match as Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Isaac Boss are given the week off, while Shane Jennings doesn't make it back from the hamstring recurrence he experienced in the warm-up last weekend.

Dominic Ryan returns to form a youthful triumvirate at the back of the scrum with last week's standout performers Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan.

In front of them, Tom Denton partners Kane Douglas in the second-row, while Marty Moore returning to the front-row alongside Michael Bent and Sean Cronin.

All three are in for a tough night given the calibre of the Cardiff front-row, but scrum coach Marco Caputo is excited by the potential that having Leixlip man Moore back in harness after four months out gives Leinster even if Tadhg Furlong - on the bench today - made strides in his absence.

"Marty will have sat back and seen the way things have played out this season. He'll be motivated to make his mark in the group and establish his place in the pecking order," Caputo said.

"The advantage Marty has that the other tightheads don't have is his shape, the fact that he is square and low and has a low centre of gravity. Under the new scrum laws that gives him a big advantage. He's just starting to work that out.

"That is where will get real value out of Marty, just being able to use his body shape and scrummage at a height that other scrums aren't comfortable going with and just being really effective in that area. He's a good footballer, he does all the bits in and around the ball: carries the ball, makes his tackles, but for us we'll get best value out of Marty if he uses his body shape."

Forced

Cardiff's Kiwi coach Mark Hammett was forced into a late change yesterday as Filo Paulo picked up a knock in yesterday's captain's run, which means former All Black Jarrad Hoeata comes into the second-row.

There will be some fanfare for Jenkins, who makes his 150th appearance for the club against a side Hammett describes as the "benchmark" club in Europe.

"Leinster will be full of confidence and have a talented squad," he said. "They are powerful in the set-piece and look to keep the ball in hand when they attack. When they are defending they use the choke tackle to really put pressure on.

"Our contact work will have to go up another notch and we need to work hard if we are to secure a result."

With powerful No8 Manoa Vosawai kept in reserve, the Welsh side have some oomph to bring off their bench, while they'll be hoping Anscombe's need to press his Wales claims will drive a composed performance from the son of former Ulster coach Mark.

Opposite him, Jimmy Gopperth returns to the Leinster No 10 jersey and takes back the kicking tee from Ian Madigan, who watches from the bench. Gopperth will need a big performance to ensure a starting slot against Castres next week, but the fact that his future is now sorted should take some pressure off.

With Noel Reid alongside him and Ben Te'o there to threaten the gainline, there is plenty of threat, and Luke McGrath's inclusion as scrum-half should liven up the service to the outside backs.

Whether they get the platform remains to be seen, but on a hard track of the 4G pitch their backs should be able to express themselves if the forwards can break the gainline with the same frequency they did against Ulster.

Leinster's away record isn't great this season - they've only beaten Zebre and Castres on the road - but their record against Cardiff is played 16, won 15.

"It's been a good enough hunting ground for us, they've got the novelty of playing on that surface the whole time," McFadden said. "I'd like to think that will suit us, the game will be a lot quicker."

The selection will make life difficult, but they should have enough to pull through.

Verdict: Leinster

Cardiff Blues- J Tuculet; A Cuthbert, C Allen, G Evans, L Amorosino; G Anscombe, T Knoyle; G Jenkins (capt), K Dacey, A Jones, L Reed, J Hoeata, J Turnbull, S Warburton, J Navidi. Reps: M Rees, S Hobbs, T Filise, M Normandale, M Vosawai, L Williams, G Davies, A Thomas.

Leinster - R Kearney; F McFadden, B Te'o, N Reid, D Kearney; J Gopperth, L McGrath; M Bent, S Cronin, M Moore; T Denton, K Douglas; D Ryan, J Murphy, J Conan. Reps: R Strauss, J Hagan, T Furlong, M McCarthy, J Van Der Flier, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Fanning.

ref - I Davies (Wales)

Cardiff Blues v Leinster,

Live, Sky Sports 1, 2.40

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