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London Irish vs Leinster Rugby
Twickenham Stadium,
Saturday, 23rd January 2010, 18:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 2, Highlights RTE2 9.30

Leinster go to Twickenham tomorrow with revenge on their minds. Since they lost their first game at home to London Irish, this is the game they've been looking forward to. That loss put them under immediate pressure in the pool and they responded to that pressure magnificently with four straight wins. The fact that those wins included three bonus points was pretty handy too, particularly as the Scarlets did Leinster another massive favour last week.

London Irish were looking for revenge themselves after losing at home to the Scarlets in the second round. After fifty minutes they led 22-10 and just needed one more try for a bonus point. However they forgot that a twelve-point lead is still only two scores and went looking for the fourth try with abandon, turning down shots at goal that would have killed the game off as a contest. The young Scarlets team played with great pride and they hit back with three converted tries to leave London Irish with nothing.

The effect of this is that far from the winner take all shoot-out that was expected, London Irish now have quite the task ahead of them to top the group. They will need to win, scoring at least four tries, while also denying Leinster any points at all. Beating Leinster is one thing, but scoring four tries against them is another thing completely, especially when their defence is so strong (last week was the first time in 14 Heineken Cup ties that they conceded more than one try in a match!)

However, it's not all despair for the exiles because if other matches tonight and tomorrow afternoon go their way, a win could still be enough to get them through. If Munster beat Northampton tonight and deny them a bonus point then it will have a dramatic effect on tomorrow's match. Leinster would definitely be through as, at the very least, a second place qualifier. Conversely a win of any kind would then be enough for London Irish to get through as a second place qualifier. Confused? Don't worry, it will all become clear by kick-off tomorrow......hopefully.

Whatever the mathematics though, Leinster badly want to win tomorrow. Leinster lose very few games at home, only five in Michael Cheika's four and a half year tenure as coach, so when they do they take it personally. What's more, they didn't like the manner in which they lost back in October in that London Irish bullied them physically at the breakdown. They knew what they were capable of, having experienced what Steffon Armitage can do in the pre-season loss at Donnybrook, but knowing what's coming is one thing, stopping it is another.

A big part of winning tomorrow will be stopping Armitage at the breakdown. To do that they could do worse than study how Ireland neutralised Heinrich Broussow in the recent win over South Africa. A big part of this was the way the Ireland players took the contact. With a combination of quick feet and spinning, the Irish players bought themselves crucial seconds before hitting the deck, Rob Kearney being a key exponent of this. These crucial extra seconds allowed the support to get up and protect the ball in time by clearing out poachers like Broussow. With his bulky build and low centre of gravity Armitage is extremely difficult to smash off the ball once he's on it, so prevention is certainly the best cure.

Armitage takes his place in a familiar looking London Irish pack. It's the same pack that won at the RDS apart from Richard Thorpe coming in for flanker Declan Danaher who's out for the season. Thorpe is a decent number eight with an eye for the try-line, but he's not in Danaher's class as a flanker. However it's still a very impressive unit and Leinster must remember the damage Bob Casey and Nick Kennedy did to their lineout last time too.

The big news for London Irish is in the backs where they welcome back their flying wingers Topsy Ojo and Sailosi Tagicakibau. With Delon Armitage back in the last few weeks after injury too, their famed back three is back in business. Admittedly, it might be interpretted as strange then, that the more conservative Chris Malone is selected to start at ten instead of the more expansive Ryan Lamb. In any case it's still a fine all round line-up.

For Leinster there are two changes to the team that started last week, both in the front row. CJ van der Linde has recovered from his calf injury sufficiently to start at tighthead in place of Stan Wright, who is a touch unfortunate to drop to the bench. CJ was massive in the scrums in the two matches against Llanelli and he'll be needed against the powerful London Irish scrum. Perhaps more surprisingly, Bernard Jackman is recalled at hooker in place of John Fogarty for only his fourth start of the season. Fogarty has done very little wrong this season, so it's a big call, but perhaps Cheika wanted Jackmans' extra bulk in the scrum and his proven ability as a ball carrier.

The other big selection news is that as with last week, Shane Jennings gets the nod over Sean O'Brien in the number seven jersey. O'Brien had a massive impact when he came on last week and many would have thought it would be enough to get him the nod, but Chieka has gone with the more experienced man again. In fairness, Jennings won't be short of motivation after the incident with Nick Kennedy in the first fixture saw him suspended for three months. He'll need to keep his discipline though and realise that the sweetest revenge over Kennedy would be to put his team out of the tournament tomorrow.

The bitterness over that incident, plus a couple of other things from the first match, will no doubt fuel an intense atmosphere tomorrow. London Irish are an aggressive, spiky team that like to get in your face, the mouthy, playground bully antics of Delon Armitage being a prime example of this attitude. They played a very limited gameplan in the RDS which involved spoiling Leinster's ball, defending tightly and hoofing most of their own ball away. In fairness, it worked well for them but you feel they'll choose a more expansive gameplan tomorrow.

If Leinster can keep their discipline and match them at the breakdown, then they should have the class to get the win to secure a home quarter-final.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-01-22