Thursday 23 November 2017

Strauss back as Leinster plan to clip Ospreys' wings

Richardt Strauss makes a surprise return to the Leinster bench for the game against the Ospreys tonight SPORTSFILE
Richardt Strauss makes a surprise return to the Leinster bench for the game against the Ospreys tonight SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Sean O'Brien committed his future to Leinster because he firmly believes there is much more silverware to be hoovered up -- tonight his team must repay his faith by securing their Heineken Cup last- eight spot.

And, after O'Brien cheered the Leinster faithful by declaring his commitment for another two seasons, Matt O'Connor's side will be further boosted by tonight's surprise return to action of hooker Richardt Strauss following heart surgery.

Leinster are confident that they are not taking a gamble on the South African's fitness, despite the fact that it once seemed likely that Strauss would not play any rugby again this season.

The home side may only need a solitary bonus point -- effectively a loss by seven points or less would do it -- to book their passage into the last eight.

But the memory of their Ballsbridge shocker against Northampton in their last home outing is still raw. Then, as Leinster pressed hard for a winning try in the last play of the game, Jamie Heaslip coughed up the ball, allowing the English side to deny thier hosts even a losing bonus point.

WARY

Hence, although Leinster will not be chasing their tail in vain as they ultimately did in Exeter this time last season, they will be wary of a slip-up against their perennial bogey side, even if the Welsh outfit bombed out of this competition in round 2.

For all the moaning from the suits in Leinster at the ERC's fixture scheduling, the only people to blame should the province fail, as seems inevitable, to secure a money-spinning quarter-final, are the players and management.

Quite simply, Leinster were shockingly unprofessional in their approach before a full house in Lansdowne Road last December -- the squad have absorbed that lesson and are confident there won't be a repeat.

"We've got to make sure that we are more accurate and more physical," insists O'Connor, highlighting the twin facets where a limp Leinster failed against Northampton.

"The thing that probably let us down the most that night was the start and giving Northampton the ability to dictate terms because they were in front on the scoreboard.

"We'll be looking for a big start. We'll be making sure that we don't give them cheap opportunities for Dan Biggar to get them into the game and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

"If we are accurate and execute on our opportunities in the first 40 minutes, I think that sets us up perfectly for where we want to be."

Even though the Welsh side have been rocked by injury and -- surprise, surprise -- a transfer saga, with returning Lions back-row and former Welsh captain Ryan Jones being targeted by Bristol, O'Connor still perceives them as a dangerous threat.

"It's not dissimilar to the mindset of Northampton when they came over," he warns. "They were focused on getting a performance, being as physical as possible and making it hard for us, more than trying to outplay us. I don't for one second think that the Ospreys are going to come here and flick the ball around because that doesn't necessarily suit them.

"They're going to race off the line in defence and be very physical at the breakdown. They will try to get Justin Tipuric into the game and they'll be looking to take their opportunities when they get them.

"They might be fourth in the group, but they haven't been beaten by a lot in any of those games.

"They're pretty economical in how they approach things. They don't go off script too much, but if you look at them historically they stay in the contest for long periods."

Leinster know this to their cost, particularly from the searing memory of two years ago when, on this very ground beneath the watch of the very same referee, Romain Poite, so loathed by RDS loyalists, Ospreys swooped to conquer in devastating, last-minute fashion to snatch a Pro12 Grand Final.

To avoid another late implosion, and cognisant of their exertions last Sunday in Castres, Leinster have predictably shaken up the pack, altering exactly half of it.

Fit-again Cian Healy -- another miracle man in terms of injury recovery -- and Martin Moore get the nod in the front-row alongside Sean Cronin.

There are two changes in the back-row, with Kevin McLaughlin and try scorer in Castres, Jordi Murphy, making way for the fit again Rhys Ruddock and Shane Jennings.

For Ospreys, Ryan Jones' return after a dead leg suffered at Christmas is a boost. Prop Adam Jones, himself linked with a move to Toulon -- who hasn't been? -- is promoted to start after two replacement appearances.

"We're a proud team, with a proud record in the Pro12 and in Dublin," declares coach Steve Tandy. "The rest of the season starts here." Quite.

Leinster's seven-point cushion skews the geography of tonight's game; in reality, the home side will have their sights on the full five points and then an improbable sequence of results to somehow garner a lucrative home tie in April.

A bit like their desperate attempts to secure both of their world-class back-rows, Leinster seem certain to succeed in securing merely one of these aims.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster -- R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Moore, D Toner, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).

Reps: R Strauss, J McGrath, M Ross, L Cullen, J Murphy, I Boss, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.

Ospreys -- S Davies; J Hassler, J Spratt, B John, A Natoga; D Biggar, R Webb; R Bevington, R Hibbard, A Jones, A-Wyn Jones (capt), I Evans, T Ardron, J Tipuric, R Jones. Reps: S Baldwin, M Thomas, D Suter, L Peers, J King, M Allen, T Habberfield, M Morgan.

Ref -- R Poite (France).

LEINSTER V OSPREYS,

LIVE, SKY SPORTS 1, 8.0

Irish Independent

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