O'Brien and Tipuric face off in Lions audition
CALL it the Warburton effect. Tonight, the two men vying with the Lions captain for the Test No 7 jersey next month come face to face in their last game of the regular season, but neither is playing on the openside.
Warburton's selection at captain and likely inclusion against the Wallabies means that his rivals must reinvent themselves.
Sean O'Brien this week spoke of his ability to play No 8 on the tour and, in the absence of Jamie Heaslip – who is sidelined by the nasty leg injury inflicted by Biarritz's Benoit August, banned yesterday for four weeks after being cited for stamping – the Carlow man gets the start here. Meanwhile, Justin Tipuric, Europe's form groundhog, lines up on the blindside.
While Warburton is being wrapped in cotton wool until the tour begins, O'Brien potentially has four weeks to show Warren Gatland and the coaches what he can do. If Leinster win today, this will be Tipuric's last chance until the Barbarians game on June 1.
Alongside O'Brien will be two of his fellow tourists as Leinster start Rob Kearney and Jonny Sexton, while Cian Healy and Brian O'Driscoll are kept in reserve. Sexton's inclusion means another outing for Ian Madigan at inside-centre as Joe Schmidt continues to give the Blackrock youngster a tour of the backline ahead of his assumption of the out-half duties next year – something that could prove very useful in the long term.
With all the talk of Ireland, the Lions and a new coach, it has been easy to forget that there are trophies still to play for and, if they win tonight, Leinster are on for two home finals to see Schmidt off in style. Having had the Ospreys spoil their last two finals at the RDS, one of which ruined Michael Cheika's send-off in 2010, they will be keen to end the Welsh region's season in order to avoid them later in the campaign.
With Glasgow just a point behind Leinster and possessing a superior points difference ahead of their visit to Galway tonight, the Blues will know that they may need a bonus-point win to ensure their run-in remains at the RDS.
Standing in their way are a resolute Ospreys team who love nothing more than winning in Dublin. However, they are without scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i, Lions hooker Richard Hibbard, flying winger Eli Walker and inspirational flanker Ryan Jones. Lions second-row Ian Evans is on the bench.
Those absentees will weaken their cause against a rotated but still strong Leinster. Four points behind the Scarlets, who are at home to Treviso, the likelihood of them qualifying is remote. "We know that we're up against it if we're going to reach the play-offs but we definitely won't be throwing the towel in," coach Steve Tandy said.
"There'd be nothing worse than giving up the fight and then getting back into the changing-room after the game to discover Treviso had done their part in Llanelli, which is why, as long as the maths mean we still have a chance, we'll be going for it."
Leinster's players have spoken openly of avenging last year's final defeat, a loss that was marked by a remarkable late fightback by the Welsh side.
In order to do so, they will need to front up to a pack that includes Adam Jones, and Jack McGrath will be looking to build on his burgeoning reputation with a big display against the likely Lions Test tighthead.
McGrath was outstanding off the bench against Munster last month and looks set to push Healy in Heinke van der Merwe's absence next season. The St Mary's man has had to bide his time, but an Irish summer tour place could be secured with a big display in illustrious company.
He partners Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan in the front-row as New Zealand-born Ireland international Michael Bent must again be content with a place on the bench.
Quinn Roux comes in for Devin Toner, while O'Brien's move to No 8 sees Rhys Ruddock start at blindside and Shane Jennings at open. Behind the scrum, Isaac Boss will look to continue his sparkling form, while Fergus McFadden partners Madigan in the centre. Andrew Conway joins Kearney and Isa Nacewa in the back three.
With just one defeat in their last 14 games, Schmidt's side are high on confidence going into a run of games that could see them crowned double winners and they should take the next step towards that tonight.
LEINSTER – R Kearney; A Conway, F McFadden, I Madigan, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; J McGrath, S Cronin, J Hagan; L Cullen (capt), Q Roux; R Ruddock, S Jennings, S O'Brien. Reps: R Strauss, C Healy, M Bent, D Toner, D Ryan, J Cooney, A Goodman, B O'Driscoll.
OSPREYS – R Fussell; T Habberfield, A Beck, B John, R Jones; D Biggar, R Webb; D Jones, S Baldwin, A Jones; AW Jones (capt), J King; J Tipuric, S Lewis, J Bearman. Reps: D Arhip, R Bevington, C Griffiths, I Evans, M Allen, M Morgan, T Isaacs, J Spratt.
Ref – N Owens (Wales)
Leinster v Ospreys
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