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Harlequins vs Leinster Rugby
The Twickenham Stoop
Sunday, 12 April 2009, 15:30

Television: Live - Sky Sports 2, Highlights RTE2: 7.30

Leinster are staring into the abyss this weekend. A win and there's a semi-final to look forward to, but a defeat will effectively end their season. Munster are now in a commanding position to win the Magners League following their victory in Thomond Park last week. Once again Leinster started promisingly in that match but were worn down by Munster's brutal defence and their own self-inflicted errors.

It was a humiliating experience for the travelling Leinster support. The pack competed gamely in the scrum and won lots of ball (and turnovers) but were let down by the backline who could do little or nothing with it. Forward passes, knock ons, wrong option-taking and poor kicking were the order of the day. This, plus some desperately poor tackling, which led directly to the two Munster tries, sealed their fate and handed the bragging rights to the Munster fans (which they fully exploited in Limerick's hostelries post-match). The much-vaunted Leinster backline owe the pack, and the fans, a big performance this weekend, for it will be another foreboding test.

When Harlequins were initially confirmed as Leinster's Quarter-final opponents, the reaction was pretty positive on the basis that it could have been a lot worse. However, events since January have sobered up Leinster's expectations and most fans now realise that they are in for a really tough match. Harlequins have won nine out of their last ten games and are unbeaten at home since losing to London Irish back in September.

When Dean Richards initially arrived at Harlequins, they'd just been relegated and he had a major rebuilding exercise to do. His pragmatic nature initially clashed somewhat with Quin's traditionally free-flowing style but he's now built a fine squad which is well-organised but which also makes room for individual talents.

On first viewing, the Harlequins pack could be dismissed due to the lack of house-hold names, with only South African hooker Gary Botha and England number eight Nick Easter standing out. This is deceptive though as this is a fine pack. Botha, who was the back-up hooker in South Africa's World Cup winning squad, has Ceri Jones and Mike Ross playing either side of him. Jones, a Welsh international, is an experienced operator who is hard as nails. On the tight side, Ross will be of special interest to Leinster fans as he is widely reported to have signed for Leinster next season. An Ireland 'A' international, he has made his reputation as a fine scrummager.

In the second row George Robson and James Percival aren't that well known but they are both tough, reliable club men whom it would be foolish to take lightly. Easter makes up the backrow with Chris Robshaw and captain Will Skinner. Robshaw is a classic number six in the Richard Hill mould, hard-working, tough-tackling and a fine ball carrier. It's a mystery why he hasn't won a full England cap yet. An ex-Tiger, Skinner is more in the Neil Back mould, an old-fashioned groundhog who's defied doubts about his size to become a vital leader in the side. There are faster number eights in the world than Easter, but few who can match his handling skills and work-rate. In short, it's a pack to be reckoned with.

The backs aren't too shabby either. Scrum-half Danny Care is an England international and he will surely nail down the starting jersey when he sorts out the disciplinary problems which have earned him four yellow cards for club and country this season. He's has a fast snappy pass, and is lightning quick on the break which will keep the Leinster back row on it's toes. He is partnered by All-Black Nick Evans, who is just coming back from injury, but who's another class act on his day. Jordan Turner-Hall and Gonzalo Tiesi make up a fast and powerful midfield and there's an all England back-three in Ugo Monye, David Strettle and Mike Brown.

Leinster have a tough task ahead, no doubt, so is there any reason for hope? Well there are a few. The one thing 'Quins are lacking is experience in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup. It's no coincidence that the two teams with the most experience of the knock-out stages of European competition, Toulouse and Munster, are the most successful. The pressure goes up considerably in the knock-out stages and 'Quins will need to deal with this.

They'll have to also deal with extra pressure of being favourites to win. When the fixture was initially announced, most would have made Leinster marginal favourites, but this has changed dramatically and now nearly everyone is tipping Harlequins. They've performed very well as the underdogs, so they might feel a bit different when they're expected to win, and win well.

The last thing is that Leinster, on their day, are still a very good rugby team. They'll have to channel the spirit of Bath and Toulouse three years ago and simply go for it. To that end Michael Chieka will be delighted to announce a team brimming with individual talent. Brian O'Driscoll returns at outside centre for his first match since winning the Grand Slam with Ireland. O'Driscoll was very much Ireland's "go-to guy" in the Championship and he'll need to replicate that role on Sunday. With O'Driscoll back, Gordon D'Arcy reverts back to inside centre in place of Shane Horgan who drops to the bench. Luke Fitzgerald has shaken off his shoulder injury and starts on the left wing, which means Rob Kearney moves to full back in place of Girvan Dempsey. Dempsey is bracketed on the bench with Jonathan Sexton, pending his appeal against his two week suspension this evening.

The pack is unchanged from last week as Cian Healy and Bernard Jackman have recovered from ankle and knee injuries respectively. The lineout went to hell when Jackman went off last week so it's vital that he stay healthy for the duration of the match. Cian Healy's scrummaging was one of the few positives of last week and this week he's has another tough test against Mike Ross. These tests will be the making of him though.

So it's all set for an epic battle with two teams who like to play rugby, but who also have two of the meanest defences in Europe. So what will Leinster need to do to win? Well they have to target the Quins lineout. Though a fine backrow, they're not the tallest and Rocky Elsom could really make some headway here. At the front Leo Cullen and Mal O'Kelly need to challenge a lot more aggressively than last week. The Quins scrum is one of their big strengths so if we break even there it would be a decent result. Stan Wright needs to bind consistently though and not give Nigel Owens any excuse to give soft penalties.

At the breakdown they need to be absolutely ruthless and give Chris Whitaker the chance to give quick ball out to the backs. In turn the backs need to stop over-complicating things and run good hard lines and give the half-backs definite options. Lastly, they need to take their chances, either when breaking the line or with place-kicks. Contepomi let the side down last week with his kicking, but he's always bounced back in the past. He needs to be on top of his game this weekend.

The benefits of not being in a half empty Twickenham Stadium is that the atmosphere in the Stoop should be red hot come kick off. The 2,500 or so Leinster fans who are making the trip are all seated together and will be in good voice.

Harlequins are a fine team, but far from unbeatable. Leinster have the class to do it, but will need to produce their finest performance of the season.

Over to you lads!!

Team Lineups


Leinster Rugby
Teams Mike Brown
15 Robert Kearney
David Strettle
14 Isa Nacewa
Gonzalo Tiesi
13 Brian O'Driscoll
Jordan Turner-Hall
12 Gordon D'Arcy
Ugo Monye
11 Luke Fitzgerald
Nick Evans
10 Felipe Contepomi
Danny Care
9 Chris Whitaker

Ceri Jones
1 Cian Healy
Gary Botha
2 Bernard Jackman
Mike Ross
3 Stan Wright
James Percival
4 Leo Cullen (C)
George Robson
5 Malcolm O'Kelly
Chris Robshaw
6 Rocky Elsom
Will Skinner (C) 7 Shane Jennings
Nick Easter 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Tani Fuga
16 John Fogarty
Mark Lambert
17 Ronan McCormack
Jim Evans
18 Trevor Hogan
Tom Guest
19 Sean O'Brien
Andy Gomersall
20 Simon Keogh
Chris Malone
21 Jonathan Sexton / Girvan Dempsey
Tom Williams
22 Shane Horgan

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-04-15