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Saracens vs Leinster Rugby
Wembley Stadium, London
Saturday, 16 October 2010, 17:45

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights 21.30 RTE2

Leinster and Saracens will meet tomorrow for the first time ever in a competitive match. Saracens have moved the match to Wembley stadium, as they've done for many of their Premiership fixtures in the last two seasons. So, it will be a unique opportunity for Leinster players to play at the home of English football and with a travelling support of 5,000 or so expected there should be no shortage of noise to inspire them.

Last weekend Leinster had a dream start to their campaign. They beat Racing and earned a four-try bonus point while denying them a losing one. In the other match Clermont beat Saracens and again neither team got a bonus point. In a group this tight, bonus points will probably decide it so Leinster are off to a great start in that respect. The performance against Racing was one of Leinster's best of the last few years. The Racing pack fully expected to grind them into dust but the Leinster front five not only fronted up to them, they actually had the better of things. In particular Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross and Devin Toner were excellent and the platform they created allowed the backrow and backline to cut Racing to ribbons. The five tries they scored were all superbly executed and defensively they choked Racing at source. It was a great start but they know that a lot can change in a week and they'll need a similar kind of performance to beat Saracens tomorrow.

Saracens had a disappointing start, losing 25-10 away to Clermont. Yet that score isn't reflective of the game at all and Saracens were very unlucky at times. They gifted two tries to Clermont, dropped balls at crucial times when they looked certain to score and Derick Hougaard also had a rare off-day with the boot. At times Saracens played some fantastic rugby, but they were a little naive, particularly when failing to punish Clermont when they were twice down to fourteen men. Their Director of Rugby Brendan Venter, who was absent last week due to a family bereavement, will be hoping for a smarter performance this weekend, because another defeat tomorrow would all but end their chances of getting out of the group.

Venter was known as a hard man in his playing days and it appears that he coaches in a similar manner. He took over in somewhat controversial circumstances as part of the South Afican influx into the club in 2009. The club was effectively bought by a group of wealthy South African businessmen and the new regime attracted negative publicity in the brutal way it dismissed a lot of players and coaches. A large number of South African players were brought in and Saracens fans openly wondered if the club would lose it's English identity.

Morale wasn't good amongst the players left behind but in fairness to Venter he very quickly unified the team, helped by going on an unbeaten ten match run at the start of last season. The South African players quickly became crowd favourites, especially Schalk Brits and Ernst Joubert but Venter was also quick to give young home-grown talent a chance and Alex Goode, Noah Cato, Brad Barritt and Andy Saull have all become important members of the squad. While they were initially criticised for playing quite conservative rugby, in the second half of the season they changed their style and started scoring tries for fun. They came within a whisker of winning the championship, only losing the final to a last minute Leicester try. This season they flexed their financial muscle again bringing in high profile players like David Strettle, Richard Wigglesworth, Deon Carstens, Kelly Brown and Matt Stevens (who'll be available after Christmas once his drugs ban ends). So they've a strong squad and will be desperate to bounce back in front of their fans at Wembley.

Venter has made two changes to the team that lost last weekend, both in the pack. Joubert returns to the number eight position in place of Kelly Brown and he makes up a mobile backrow with Jacques Burger and Saull. The other change is in the second row where Mouritz Botha comes in for Hugh Vyvyan to partner captain Steve Borthwick. The front row of Carstens (who Leinster apparently pursued last summer), Brits and Carlos Nieto is unchanged. Brits is undoubtedly their star man, a hooker with the pace of a winger, he's a man Leinster will need to watch carefully. The backs are unchanged from the last day. With the exception of Hougaard and American international Chris Wyles it's quite a young backline with Barritt and Adam Powell bringing power in the centre and Goode and Strettle adding pace and guile out wide. Overall it's a very strong team and Leinster know they will need to be on top of their game.

For Leinster the big news is that, as expected, Brian O'Driscoll will miss the match due to the hamstring injury he picked up last week. Joe Schmidt has opted to reshuffle the backline with Luke Fitzgerald moving in from the wing to replace him at outside centre. This means Shane Horgan comes in on the right wing and Isa Nacewa switches over to the left. This is tough on Fergus McFadden, who must have fancied his chances of a first Heineken Cup start after his excellent try last weekend. In truth, Horgan also looked sharp when he came on and his greater experience probably just nicked it for him.

The only other change to the team is the return of Cian Healy to the front row in place of Heinke van der Merwe. Healy will no doubt be raring to go after being benched last week and his scrummaging will need to be as steady as van der Merwe's was last week. If he can do that, he adds a huge amount in the loose as he showed last week in the build-up to Jamie Heaslip's try. Better news on the injury front is the return to fitness of captain Leo Cullen who is named on the bench. With his experience and organisational abilities he'll be able to make a huge impact if brought in when the match is tight.

Still, all in all it's an exciting line-up and with good weather forecast, it could be set up for a very exciting match. Saracens will be tough to beat but if Leinster can repeat the ambition of their performance of last week, then they could get the win to really put them in command of the group.

Team Lineups
Leinster Rugby
Teams Alex Goode
15 Robert Kearney
David Strettle
14 Shane Horgan
Adam Powell
13 Luke Fitzgerald
Brad Barritt 12 Gordon D'Arcy
Chris Wyles 11 Isa Nacewa
Derick Hougaard 10 Jonathan Sexton
Richard Wigglesworth 9 Eoin Reddan

Deon Carstens 1 Cian Healy
Schalk Brits 2 Richardt Strauss
Carlos Nieto 3 Mike Ross
Steve Borthwick (C)
4 Nathan Hines
Mouritz Botha 5 Devin Toner
Jacques Burger 6 Sean O'Brien
Andy Saull 7 Shane Jennings
Ernst Joubert 8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Jamie George 16 Jason Harris-Wright
Matt Parr 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Richard Skuse 18 Simon Shawe
Hayden Smith 19 Leo Cullen
Kelly Brown 20 Dominic Ryan
Neil de Kock 21 Isaac Boss
Kameli Ratuvou 22 Fergus McFadden
Noah Cato 23 Eoin O'Malley
Not Considered
due to Injury

Stan Wright,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Shaun Berne,
Ed O'Donoghue,
John Fogarty,
Brian O'Driscoll
Officials Referee: Christophe Berdos (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Cedric Marchat (FFR), Jean-Luc Rebollal (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23