Nacewa ruled out of Munster and Montpellier ties
Leinster without captain for crunch games, writes Ruaidhri O'Connor
Leinster look set to be without captain Isa Nacewa as they enter what Fergus McFadden has labelled "the defining part" of their season.
Given that the province have yet to assemble their strongest available team on one pitch, it may seem like a big statement.
But with Munster coming to Dublin on Saturday, and Europe getting going a week later when a buoyant Montpellier come to the RDS for the Champions Cup opener, there is little margin for error. Those tough home fixtures are followed by trips to unbeaten Glasgow in two competitions, with a visit to Belfast in between.
Nacewa pulled a calf during the first half of the Blues' defeat in Bloemfontein and missed Friday's stuttering win over Edinburgh.
It appears Leo Cullen will be forced to do without him for the next two pivotal games, although he may return in time for the round two fixture in Glasgow.
Robbie Henshaw should return this week to boost a backline that sometimes struggled defensively against a lively Edinburgh side coached by Richard Cockerill.
He took contact in training last week and will ramp things up ahead of the Aviva Stadium clash that is looking like surpassing the 40,000 mark in terms of attendance.
Although senior men Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney and Nacewa remain sidelined, this will be the first time Cullen will be selecting from his strongest hand available, having given some of those who soldiered in the early part of the season the weekend off.
Noel Reid came off with a head injury on Friday and will go through the return to play protocols; with a host of midfield options out, it appears likely Henshaw will slot in alongside Rory O'Loughlin in the centre.
Munster have their own issues. Rassie Erasmus is sweating over the fitness of Jaco Taute, who was stretchered off after 19 minutes of Saturday's win over Cardiff Blues.
Taute left Thomond Park in a knee brace and underwent a scan yesterday to determine the extent of the damage to his ligaments. Erasmus admitted that it looked "serious".
Keith Earls should return for the Aviva showdown but Simon Zebo and Jean Kleyn are rated as 50/50. Jack O'Donoghue and Sean O'Connor are expected to be back in contention.
Leinster are eyeing the game as a springboard into the meat of their season. Of particular concern is the early season form of their pool rivals.
Montpellier's big win over Brive yesterday keeps them top of the French league, while English champions Exeter lost in Leicester at the weekend but are in decent fettle with three wins from five games, and Glasgow are the only unbeaten team in the Guinness PRO14.
"The other teams have got off to fliers. It's a tough pool, a very, very tough pool," Cullen said.
"They may have stolen a march on us but we've another week to get ourselves ready. We're not thinking that far ahead, it's about making sure we nail our performance against Munster in the PRO14 in what is a huge game.
"It's going to have to get a bit more cohesive as a group, we have chopped and changed a lot, that's a great strength but you go in with a big risk each weekend because you don't have that level of cohesion. It's important we start to build that over the next couple of weeks."
McFadden is anticipating a rise in intensity when training gets under-way at UCD this afternoon.
"We want to get picked for every game, but a home game against Munster in the Aviva is as close as you're going to get to the Champions Cup without playing in it," he said.
"I find this match is a real springboard for us in terms of where we go for the rest of the season.
"Sometimes you look previously over the past few years, when we've lost to Munster at this stage things haven't gone great post that.
"It can be a real confidence booster for either team. It's the perfect curtain raiser leading into the Champions Cup.
"It's a strong squad we have, a squad that can win trophies and that's where we want to be.
"So this block of games, we know this is the defining part of the season.
"This October block is going to define where we're going to be come the business end and we need to play well in it."