Leinster travel to the beautiful Somerset town of Bath in the first leg of their Heineken Cup double-header. Travelling fans are hoping for a smooth crossing in light of the recent hurricane force winds that have strafed the Irish Sea, and the team will be hoping to leave with the vital away victory which would put them in a commanding position at the top of the group.
Joe Schmidt has named his team, and there are a couple of surprises along with the expected selection strategies that Leinster fans saw in last year’s successful campaign. Isaac Boss is picked at scrumhalf, just as he was for the away fixtures against Clermont Auvergne and Racing Metro last year, and Heinke van der Merwe starts at loosehead prop.
And now to the surprises: Damian Browne is included at the expense of Devin Toner, with the Castleknock man starting the game on the bench. Browne’s selection is another example of the Belichic-ian ‘Situational Football’ selection ethos that Schmidt has brought to Leinster. Over the last week he has several times referred to the Rec’s “sticky” pitch, and has picked his second row to reflect the weather and the underfoot conditions. Browne is not in Toner’s league as a lineout jumper, but his 127kg frame adds serious grunt in the scrum and he’s the big, hard-hitting, no-frills sort of second row that adds grit to the pack in front of a hostile away crowd.
In order to make up for Browne’s lack of aerial ability, Kev McLaughlin starts at No6, with Sean O’Brien starting on the openside in place of Shane Jennings. In the absence of Toner, McLaughlin will be Leinster’s prime jumper on opposition ball, and will likely move up and down the line when it is Leinster’s lineout. Browne’s heft, so advantageous in the tight, is a decided burden at lineout time. He’s a stump: difficult to get off the ground. It’s probable that he will be used in the French mode as a lifter rather than as a jumper, a role that he will be used to having played with Brive for three seasons.
Leo Cullen and Jamie Heaslip are good aerial options, and Sean O’Brien has been used in the past at the front, so it’s not exactly a hamstrung lineout. All the same, it’s disappointing for Toner to be omitted from the starting lineup, as he has been playing consistently well. On the other hand, he’s in good company on the substitute’s bench with fellow internationals Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan.
Aside from Boss at scrumhalf, the other noticeable change in the backline is the reintroduction of Fergus McFadden at outside centre. McFadden started against Munster and Montpellier in the No13 jersey, and it was his knee injury that gave Eoin O’Malley the chance to shine against Glasgow, an opportunity he took with both hands. However, the physicality of the old Clongownian is preferred over the footballing nous of the Old Belvo boy this time around. Every way Schmidt turns he’s surrounded by Jesuits!
Another Clongowes old-boy Rob Kearney is at fullback, with Nacewa on the right wing and Luke Fitz on the left. Questions abound over whether this is the most potent back three Leinster can field – Dave Kearney and Fionn Carr bring more pace to the wings, and Nacewa is a better fullback than he is a winger, but Rob Kearney on a winter’s day at an away ground is a great safety blanket for any high-ball attack. True, he’s a total cul-de-sac with ball in hand, but he’s got an awful lot more pace than people give him credit for and is a very physical runner when taking the ball to the line. He’s progressing as a counter-attacker in his first real season on the training ground under Schmidt, and hopefully he can learn to link with Nacewa and Fitzgerald in something like the manner Ashton and Foden manage at Northampton.
The biggest news on the injury front for Bath is that English World Cup captain Lewis ‘Groovy’ Moody is out – his dodgy shoulder will require surgery, and he will likely miss the rest of the group stages. His place on the openside is taken by nipper Guy Mercer, who will celebrate his twenty-second birthday the day after the game. Going head-to-head with Sean O’Brien is the sort of present only a masochist would appreciate, but that’s the way the [birthday] cards fall. Laboured.
Mercer will be joined in the backrow by two-time Lion Simon Taylor and Springbok Francois Louw. At 32, Taylor is at the tail-end [enough] of a career whose brightest moments were dimmed by injury. He was twice selected for British and Irish Lions tours – the 2001 tour to Australia and the 2005 tour to New Zealand – but both times had his tour cut short by injury before starting a game. Louw is an import from Western Province, and was part of the Springboks squad at RWC11. While he didn’t exactly set the tournament alight, the man in possession – Schalk Burger – was one of the outstanding flankers of the tournament, so it’s harsh to judge Louw as a non-contributing factor. He just couldn’t get a look-in. At this level, however, he can be a big player.
The second row is composed of two newcomers to the club, Dave Atwood of Gloucester and Ryan Caldwell of Ulster. Both have two caps from their respective countries, and both are tall – 201cm [6’7”] – and athletic; Atwood is a former England U16 discus champion. Caldwell moved away from Ulster after his early promise failed to ignite, and Atwood started at Bristol before moving to Gloucester, where he made 37 appearances for the Cherry & Whites over two seasons. An awful lot of noise is made on Sky Sports about ‘the modern lock’ [mostly in reference to Northampton and England’s Courtney Lawes], and it will be an interesting tussle between these two and the far more old-school pairing of Cullen and Browne, the one all gristle and experience, the other just a huge lump of a man.
In the backline, World Cup Hero © Stephen Donald starts at outhalf, with former Bright Young Things Ollie Barkley and Dan Hipkiss in the centres. Leinster fans will remember that Hipkiss gave the Leinster midfield fits in the 2009 HEC final while playing for Leicester, and both himself and Barkley were members of the English outfit that reached the final of RWC07. Barkley has suffered horrendous luck with injury, having broken his leg twice in the last two seasons. Between those injuries and his ill-fated season in Gloucester in 2008-09 his career floundered badly, and this is just his fourth start of the season.
The Bath back three is made up of another alumnus of the BYT club, fullback Nick Abendanon, with wingers Ooh Matt Banahan and Jack “Calculus” Cuthbert. Abendanon was just 20 years old when he won his two caps for England back in the summer of 2007, and was one of those players who was hyped too fast too soon. He’s a talented counter-attacker with a great head of blond hair – in those days it was enough to get you a cap!
Whatever about Banahan’s liabilities as a footballer, he’s a hell of a difficult man to bring down; it’s fortunate that Leinster have a tackler of the calibre of Isa Nacewa on his wing, because the Fijian superhero can lay down the bosh with the best of them . Jack Cuthbert is sort of a Banahan-lite – very tall for a winger at 195cm [6’5”] but not in the same class as the Channel Islander as a dominant contact-merchant.
The Mole thinks that Leinster will take this one. Donald may be a World Cup-winner, with all the attendant confidence that that brings with it, but he was still just the fourth choice outhalf for New Zealand [fourth choice at best, when you consider Nick Evans is having a hell of a season for Harlequins]. Bath are struggling in the league, and Leinster have an awful lot more depth in their match-day squad and are capable of raising the game to a tempo with which the Bath pack will struggle. Leinster for the away win.