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Bath Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Recreation Ground, Bath,
Sunday, 11th December 2011, 12:45

Television: Live Sky Sports 2, Highlights TG4 17.00

Ah Bath!

The small city in the south-west of England holds special memories for Leinster fans.  Possibly the most beautiful city in England, Leinster visited two years in a row back in January 2005 and 2006.  They won the first game with a late smash and grab raid when David Holwell and Malcolm O'Kelly scored tries in the final minutes.  Those scores secured a 27-23 win, but in truth Bath had been the better team by far.

A year later Leinster fans travelled more in hope than expectation. Having lost their home game against Bath at the RDS, Leinster had to win and win well to have any hope of making the quarter-finals. Bath were unbeaten in the pool stages and with a big dominant pack led by the fearsome Danny Grewcock, they were expected to squeeze the life out of Leinster. By the time twenty minutes had passed, Grewcock and his pals would look up in disbelief at a scoreboard that told them they trailed 21-3.

Leinster were simply on fire. Felipe Contepomi set the ultra-attacking tempo with a quick tap in his own twenty-two that led to a try by Shane Horgan. Then Contepomi intercepted a pass in his own half and took a smart angled line to score in the corner himself. There was even better to come with the next score. Brian O'Driscoll took the moment to really announce he was back after the injury he sustained on the Lions tour in New Zealand. He took a superb line off Contepomi's inside pass and danced past two tacklers. He then exchanged passes with Gordon D'Arcy before slipping the ball to prop Will Green for the try. It was one of Leinster's all-time great scores and it was fitting that the hard-working Englishman got the touchdown.

Bath never recovered from this start and Horgan and O'Driscoll added further excellent tries in the second half. It was a master-class display by O'Driscoll that had commentator Stuart Barnes wondering about setting up a religion in his name. Bath got two late tries to make the final score respectable at 35-23 but this was a landmark day in Leinster history. It was the first time they really made Europe sit up and take notice and though it took another three and a half years before that promise was finally realised with victory in Murrayfield, it remains a special day.

Of the Leinster match-day squad that played that day just under six years ago, only five players remain. Two of them, Horgan and O'Driscoll, are sadly injured at the moment so that just leaves three players, D'Arcy, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney to regale the squad with the stories of how they tore Bath apart. If you have a chance, look up the tries again on Youtube, it really does the heart good.

Since that day Bath have largely been in the doldrums. They were the dominant English club in the amateur era, especially in the late Eighties and early Nineties. For those old enough to have grown up watching BBC2's Rugby Special on Sunday evenings, Bath were a joy to watch. They were a class act with the likes of the aforementioned Stuart Barnes, Jeremy Guscott, Phil de Glanville, Tony Swift and Jonathan Webb scoring tries for fun. They had plenty of tough forwards too in the likes of Andy Robinson, John Hall, Nigel Redman, Graham Dawe and Gareth Chilcott. With Jack Rowell and Brian Ashton as the coaches, they were almost perennial champions. This continued for the start of the professional era and they became the first English club to win the Heineken Cup with a last gasp win over Brive in 1998.

However since then the only piece of silverware they've picked up was the European Challenge Cup in 2008. For most of the professional era, they've seen their bitter rivals in the glory days, the Leicester Tigers, supersede them as England's premier team. In more recent times they've also been over-taken by the likes of Northampton and Saracens too. At different times over the last decade they've flirted with relegation from the Premiership, had financial and ownership problems and even had their reputation sullied with a drugs scandal.

This season, they've made a poor start to their domestic league and lie third from bottom in the table with only four wins to their name. They've lost three times at home in the league to Saracens, Harlequins and last week to the Sale Sharks. However, Leinster would be unwise to put too much stock in those results as many of them happened during the World Cup. In the Heineken Cup, Bath are actually going quite well. They were looking odds-on for an away win in Glasgow until a ridiculously fortuitous bounce of the ball let Richie Gray in for a last-minute try. Even then, they took a losing bonus point and they followed that up with a win over Montpellier in which Stephen Donald, their Kiwi out-half import, ran the show. With only two points separating Bath and Leinster in the table, a win would put Bath back in control of the pool so they have to be taken seriously.

Bath have named a team showing five personnel changes to the team that started last week against Sale. The big news for them is that their big-name Southern-Hemisphere imports Stephen Donald and Francois Louw are fit to start. Former Springbok flanker Louw is a master of mischief at the breakdown and he captains the team from the backrow alongside Guy Mercer and former Scotland International Simon Taylor. England international Dave Attwood comes into the second row to partner former Ulster player Ryan Caldwell. Caldwell was an excellent prospect at Ulster but a lack of discipline hindered his development. However he's kept his nose clean at Bath so far and had already impressed the home crowd with his physical commitment.

In the front row, US international Chris Biller makes his first start for Bath at hooker. Biller was an emergency signing last month as Bath's three main hookers Lee Mears, Pieter Dixon and Ross Batty are all injured. Biller played well for the United States during the World Cup, but this will be a serious step-up for him. At least he'll have the experienced England international props David Flatman and David Wilson either side of him to back him up.

In the backs former Leicester player Dan Hipkiss returns to the centre to partner Olly Barkley. Then it's a case of musical chairs for the rest of the outside backs as Nick Abendanon moves from left wing to full-back, Jack Cuthbert moves from full back to right wing and Matt Banahan moves from outside centre to left wing. It means Bath will line up with a massive three-quarter line, particularly in Cuthbert and Banahan, who are both huge men. Abendanon is an elusive runner at full-back and Donald will form a class half-back pairing with South African Michael Claassens. If these two can get their out-side backs running at pace, they'll be hard to stop. In truth, Bath's injury problems are reflected in the inexperience of their replacements where only flanker Andy Beattie and centre Sam Vesty are experienced operators. For all that, it's still a strong starting line-up for Bath and they'll fancy themselves at home.

Last week Leinster warmed up for this match with a crushing win over the Cardiff Blues that left them top of the Pro12 table going into Christmas. The match couldn't really have gone better for Joe Schmidt in that the starting fifteen pretty much secured the win and then the heavy artillery were sprung off the bench to put the finishing polish on it. With another six tries, a couple of them absolute gems, he will also have been pleased to see him team rediscover their attacking groove of last season. After scoring only 13 tries in their first nine games of the season, Leinster have now scored 14 tries in the last three games. Schmidt will be equally pleased to note that Leinster's defensive meanness has also returned with only two tries conceded in the last three games, after conceding 15 in their first nine games. The performance meant that competition for places for this week's game was off the chart and inevitably there will be some disappointed players.

But Schmidt has made his choice and made twelve changes to the team that started against Cardiff last weekend (including nine personnel and three positional switches). In fact, only Isaac Boss, Leo Cullen and Richardt Strauss retain the same jerseys that they wore last weekend. Rob Kearney is back at full back with Isa Nacewa switched back to the right wing. Gordon D'Arcy is back at inside centre, which means Fergus McFadden moves out to outside centre in place of Eoin O'Malley. O'Malley is hugely unfortunate to be dropped after three excellent displays in the number 13 jersey but McFadden's strength in the tackle may have just got him the nod against Bath's massive three-quarter line. However to really convince people he's an outside centre, McFadden needs to link the play as well as O'Malley has done in the last three weeks.

Luke Fitzgerald is back on the left wing and Jonathan Sexton returns to the out-half jersey to partner Boss. It's a testimony to the strength of the match-day squad that no place can be found for either Dave Kearney or Fionn Carr, who were both excellent in the win over Cardiff. In the pack Heinke van der Merwe and Mike Ross come in at prop to team up with Strauss in the front row. Cian Healy won't be happy to be on the bench for a second Heineken Cup match in a row, but perhaps he's paying the price for some poor on-pitch discipline of late. Damian Browne partners Cullen in the second row and Kevin McLaughlin and Jamie Heaslip come into the back row, with Sean O'Brien moving to open-side.

The side very much has the look of Joe Schmidt's "Away-Day" team, with plenty of bulk in the pack with the likes of Browne and McLaughlin and Boss at scrum-half to dominate around the fringes. Indeed it's the exact same starting line-up that took the field against Montpellier. Schmidt has been talking all week of the Recreation Ground's sticky pitch and with heavy rain forecast, he's clearly anticipating something of a dog-fight between the packs. He has a bench that can pick up the pace if needed though, especially in the case of Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Shane Jennings and especially hooker Sean Cronin, who is another player unlucky not to be starting.

So it may not be the display of beautiful running rugby that we saw six years ago, but Leinster should have enough quality, especially off the bench, to dig out a vital win.

 

Team Lineups

Bath Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Nick Abendanon 15 Rob Kearney
Jack Cuthbert 14 Isa Nacewa
Dan Hipkiss 13 Fergus McFadden
Olly Barkley 12 Gordon D'Arcy
Matt Banahan 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Stephen Donald 10 Jonathan Sexton
Michael Claassens 9 Isaac Boss

David Flatman 1 Heinke van der Merwe
Chris Biller 2 Richardt Strauss
David Wilson 3 Mike Ross
Dave Attwood 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Ryan Caldwell 5 Damian Browne
Francois Louw (C)
6 Kevin McLaughlin
Guy Mercer 7 Sean O'Brien
Simon Taylor 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Charlie Beech 16 Sean Cronin
Nathan Catt 17 Cian Healy
Anthony Perenise 18 Nathan White
Will Spencer 19 Devin Toner
Andy Beattie 20 Shane Jennings
Chris Cook 21 Eoin Reddan
Tom Heathcote 22 Ian Madigan
Sam Vesty 23 Eoin O'Malley

Not Considered
due to Injury
Lewis Moody,
Stuart Hooper,
Mark McMillan,
Lee Mears,
Pieter Dixon,
Ross Batty,
Ben Shirving

Mat Berquist,
Eamonn Sheridan,
Shane Horgan,
Simon Shawe,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Dominic Ryan
Officials

Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Patrick Pechambert, Franck Maciello (both FFR),
TMO: Jean Claude Levrier (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-12-09

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