Leinster will have nearly all their Irish contingent back in the squad after a bruising November series for their trip to Bath.
Integrating them back into club routines, life, moves and training is Leo’s big challenge. They are professionals, however, so there should be no excuses after this weekend. Expect them to gel quickly and look like they have not been apart.
The November games have raised the profile of some of the lesser well known names. Not everyone in from the International ranks will be guaranteed their place each week. In some cases the bench spot might go to one of the up-and-coming stars.
The Leinster team has a familiar feel to it, an Irish feel. With the exception of Noel Reid and James Lowe, it is the Irish team.
|Nathan Catt||1||Cian Healy|
|Tom Dunn||2||Sean Cronin|
|Henry Thomas||3||Tadgh Furlong|
|Dave Atwood||4||Devin Toner|
|Charlie Ewels||5||James Ryan|
|Tom Ellis||6||Rhys Ruddock|
|Sam Underhill||7||Josh van der Flier|
|Francois Louw||8||Dan Leavy|
|Will Chudley||9||Luke McGrath|
|James Wilson||10||Johnny Sexton|
|Joe Cokanasiga||11||James Lowe|
|Jamie Roberts||12||Noel Reid|
|Jackson Willison||13||Garry Ringrose|
|Semesa Rokoduguni||14||Jordan Larmour|
|Ruaridh McConnochie||15||Rob Kearney|
|Jack Walker||16||James Tracy|
|Jacques van Rooyen||17||Ed Byrne|
|Max Lahiff||18||Andrew Porter|
|Elliot Stooke||19||Ross Molony|
|Matt Garvey||20||Jack Conan|
|Kahn Foruali’i||21||Jamison Gibson-Park|
|Cooper Vuna||22||Ross Byrne|
|Alex Davies||23||Rory O’Loughlin|
There are some players who impressed while their international colleagues were on duty. Hugo Keenan, Conor O’Brien and Jimmy O’Brien each put on excellent displays. With the back line suffering so many injuries this year, Rob and Dave Kearney, Joe Tomane and Adam Byrne recent examples, they should get plenty of opportunity this year. Perhaps this weekend was too soon.
In the back row, we should soon be seeing Caelon Doris, and Scott Penny come through, not to mention Max Deegan and Josh Murphy, who may just ahead of their younger rivals. All these young stars will have to wait for another weekend, however, making way for the big name stars.
A European Champions Cup game is a step up from the humdrum of Pro 14 rugby, and Bath, while they have had a rocky year so far, will not be an easy team to play against.
Let’s not forget that the last time we played Bath at the Rec, they narrowly beat us 19-16. That was three years ago, different teams completely. It just shows that nothing should be taken for granted.
Leinster have improved year on year and in almost every area of the game in the last few years. The team this year is unrecognisable from three years ago. There are familiar faces all right, but the iron the team shows in defence and the precision when attacking simply was not there at the Rec the last time.
Asking for a bonus point victory away from home might be too much like asking Santa Claus to deliver early. Express delivery for pool qualification, please. We may not need it to win the group, but we surely do need to win the game. I’d probably settle for eight points from the two fixtures.
That would put us on sixteen. Toulouse have a two-point lead on us and face a tough set of games themselves home and away to Wasps. The latter disappointed me when we played them in the RDS. It felt like they gave up too soon, although Leinster were in great form that day.
They bounced back, a little anyway, with a thirty-five point-a-piece, try-fest draw against Bath the next weekend. Bath had put Toulouse close the week prior, Freddy Burns throwing away victory with some show boating in the act of scoring what should have been the match winning try.
Then Toulouse upped their game to narrowly beat Leinster. Where does that leave us? Leinster’s home form is there for all to see. Now we need a better performance on the road.
I fear that the omission of Scott Fardy is going to back-fire on Leo Cullen. It was a tough decision, to be sure. You cannot play the Australian in the same squad as Gibson-Park and James Lowe due to the restrictions in place for the European Cup.
It is not simply his skill in the second row, excellent though he is, but he adds leadership, intelligence, and bravery to the mix that less experienced players cannot be expected to replicate. Although James Ryan is not far off, despite his youth.
I’m looking forward to the trip. Bath is a lovely town to visit. I missed going to the last couple of pool stages in Bath, but I was in the stadium when Leinster beat them in the final pool game to just about make the quarter finals. That was in January 2006. We left the Rec victors 35-23 all racked up the bonus point also.
That was the year we beat Toulouse away from home in the quarter finals. One of the first signs of the Leinster side that emerged, slowly. That season ended with lacklustre display against Munster in the old Landsdown Road. That was the fire that ignited and powered Leinster to four titles in subsequent seasons.
It might not be too far from the result this weekend. We have an incredibly strong team. The forwards are dominant and the back line is exciting. There is buoyancy in the squad from the successful International series and also the good results on the domestic side.
It’s not clear whether Wasps have enough to beat Toulouse this year. Their domestic form is better than Bath’s but they are in a precarious position with only three points from the opening two rounds in Europe.
Pride will probably mean they will play a lot stronger at home than away. The first game is at home, shortly after Bath and Leinster have finished up. A Wasps win puts either Leinster in front or Bath up there vying for the top spot and Wasps will be close behind. It would tighten up an already close group.
It does not seem possible for Wasps to repeat the feat the next weekend (once would be a surprise), and it would be difficult to imagine Leinster losing in the Aviva next weekend. So this group is ours for the taking if we can just get the four points this weekend.
All I want for Christmas is to have a chance to take over top spot of the group when Toulouse come to Dublin in January. Eight points from the back to back games against Bath is enough to put us in position. That will set the scene nicely for when the French come to town. The mission is clear, the team selected. It’s predicted to be damp but not too wet. Game on.