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Scarlets vs Leinster Rugby
Parc y Scarlet, Llanelli,
Saturday, 1st September 2012, 18:30

Television: Live TG4/S4C

Those damn Ospreys!!!

Leinster had their most successful season ever last term. They won the most games, lost only four all season and retained the Heineken Cup after going unbeaten throughout that competition. Yet, the season finished on something of a sour note as the Ospreys beat them in a thrilling Pro12 final in the RDS. The Leinster players were devastated at the final whistle, giving the lie to the current English propaganda about Irish teams not caring about their league.

Though they'd lost the final to Munster the previous year too, that one seemed to hurt less as Munster had finished top of the league and were deserved winners on the day. Leinster seemed to have done everything right last season though, going on a long unbeaten run to claim top spot with a few weeks to spare. With the final at the RDS after a comfortable win over Ulster at Twickenham the week before; they felt sure they'd complete the double this time. However it wasn't to be and though referee Romain Poite was as dreadfully erratic as ever, Leinster had to take their share of the blame too. On one of the hottest days of the year on a Sunday afternoon, they took off playing at a hundred miles an hour. It was no wonder that they ran out of steam in the last twenty minutes.

But if there's one consolation, it's that the hunger will remain in the Leinster squad for that elusive double. With the Heineken Cup final in the Aviva stadium this season, Leinster will already be hoping to have two finals in a week in Dublin 4. Of course, there's a huge amount of rugby to be played first. Leinster have been drawn with our old friends Clermont once again and they'll be itching for revenge after losing the last two times the sides have played. Exeter are a bit of an unknown quantity but their Cinderella story has been quite inspirational to watch as they've come up from the Championship and become a force in the English Premiership. The other team in the group are the Scarlets and by coincidence they are also Leinster's first opponents this season.

It's been a summer of change for the Scarlets as head coach Nigel Davies left for Gloucester to be replaced by defence coach Simon Easterby. Easterby, of course, had a distinguished Ireland career and is the brother of Guy, the current Leinster manager. As the financial problems in Welsh rugby continue to bite, Easterby had to watch as some of his most experienced players left during the summer. Stephen Jones went to Wasps, Sean Lamont to Glasgow and Ben Morgan to Gloucester. You could also forgive if commentators sighed as they read about Lou Reed and Dominic Day's departure to Cardiff and Bath respectively. No more "Perfect Day" jokes when reading the teamsheet then. With experienced props Iestyn Thomas and Rhys Thomas both forced into retirement, there's been quite a turnover of playing staff.

It hasn't all been players going out though, Easterby has been busy bringing players in too and he picked up some young talent in Gareth Owen and Kristian Philips from the Ospreys. He's also bolstered the second row with foreign talent in Australian Jake Bell, South African George Earle and Argentinean international Tomas Vallejo. Strengthening the front five is clearly top of Easterby's to-do list and during the week, he signed South African tight-head prop Jacobie Adriaanse, who'll arrive at the end of October.

Even better for Easterby is the news that he's managed to hold onto his young stars despite many French clubs making eyes at them. The likes of Jonathan Davies, George North, Rhys Priestland, Ken Owens, Scott Williams and Aaron Shingler are all full internationals now, the first three in particular key men in Wales's Six Nations triumph. They are a group that he can build a team around and there's more young talent coming through in the likes of Tavis Knoyle, Lee Williams, Josh Turnbull and Rhodri Jones.

Last season the Scarlets started off great in Europe with wins over Castres and Northampton. However they lost narrowly in both their games against Munster and their campaign foundered on that. In the league they were just as inconsistent and missed out on a semi-final berth by just three points and they may well have cause to curse their home defeat to a weakened Leinster side back in September. With a strong team named they'll be looking to equal or better their 18-16 win back on the first day of the 2009-10 season.

Easterby is able to call on internationals George North, Scott Williams and Aaron Shingler from the start with Rhys Priestland and Jonathan Davies on the bench. Gareth Maule and Andy Fenby complete the three-quarter-line with Liam Williams at full-back and Aled Thomas and Tavis Knoyle the half-backs. Rhodri Jones, Ken Owens and Deacon Manu make up the front row and George Earle makes his debut in the second row alongside Richard Kelly. Josh Turnbull and Aaron Shingler are the flankers and Rob McCusker captains the team from number eight. It's a very strong Scarlets team missing only a few regular starters.

Leinster desperately want to break their pattern of opening day jitters that has seen them win their first game only once in the past nine seasons (it was against Edinburgh in 2007 before you go looking it up). Their preseason form has been up and down. There was a promising win over Gloucester in Tallaght stadium followed by a hiding against a practically full strength Northampton team in Franklins Gardens. Last week, they got a reasonable ten-all draw away to Sale Sharks.

Leinster's cause has been weakened by a number of long-term injuries though. Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O'Brien probably wouldn't have come into the mix this early in the season but Eoin O'Malley, Rhys Ruddock and David Kearney would be key figures at this stage and none of the three will be back before November. As ever though injury means opportunity and academy lads like Darren Hudson, Jordi Murphy, Collie O'Shea and Noel Reid will be looking to make the most of the opportunities that will come their way in the next few weeks.

Despite all the injuries and international absentees Schmidt has still named a fairly strong team led by openside Shane Jennings who is in the backrow with Dominic Ryan at blindside and Leo Auva'a is at number eight. Damian Browne has recovered from injury to partner Devin Toner in the second row. Heinke van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss and Jamie Hagan are the front row so overall the front five is fairly strong. In the circumstances with all the injuries, it's a pretty decent pack overall.

The backline largely picked itself, the only question really who would get the nod at inside centre. Ireland Under-20 backrow Jordan Coghlan has been tried in the pre-season matches as has Collie O'Shea, but Noel Reid's creativity gets him the nod. He partners Brendan Macken and the pair will look to strike up a good understanding. Outside them, Macken's former Blackrock schools team-mate Andrew Conway is selected on the right wing.

Since making his debut as an 18-year-old against the Scarlets back in early 2010, it's been a frustrating time for Conway as a succession of niggling injuries have halted his progress. He's bulked up though to nearly 14 stone and hopefully the extra muscle will allow him to take the hits better, because there's no doubt he's the quickest player in the squad and a potential superstar. He's still only 21 and it would be interesting to see how he gets on if he can get a good run of games under his belt. He's part of an exciting back three with Isa Nacewa and Fionn Carr, which could be devastating if they get some decent ball.

It's still a big ask for Leinster to win this, especially with the Scarlets naming a very strong team. But coach Joe Schmidt is such a perfectionist that the two first day defeats in his tenure will really bug him. It will be typically error-strewn early season stuff with many a ball going to ground, but hopefully Leinster can pull off a win to banish the opening day blues.

Team Lineups


Leinster Rugby
Teams Liam Williams 15 Isa Nacewa
George North 14 Andrew Conway
Gareth Maule 13 Brendan Macken
Scott Williams 12 Noel Reid
Andy Fenby 11 Fionn Carr
Aled Thomas 10 Ian Madigan
Tavis Knoyle 9 Isaac Boss

Rhodri Jones 1 Heinke van der Merwe
Ken Owens
2 Richardt Strauss
Deacon Manu
3 Jamie Hagan
George Earle 4 Damian Browne
Richard Kelly 5 Devin Toner
Aaron Shingler 6 Dominic Ryan
Josh Turnbull 7 Shane Jennings(C)
Rob McCusker(C) 8 Leo Auva'a

Replacements Matthew Rees 16 Aaron Dundon
Phil John 17 Jack McGrath
Samson Lee 18 Martin Moore
Sione Timani 19 Tom Denton
Kieran Murphy 20
Jordi Murphy
Gareth Davies 21 John Cooney
Rhys Priestland 22 Collie O'Shea
Jonathan Davies 23 Darren Hudson

Not Considered
due to Injury
Dale Ford,
Gareth Owen,
Morgan Stoddart,
Emyr Phillips,
Jake Ball,
Joel Galley,
Rob Evan

Luke Fitzgerald,
Sean O'Brien,
Eoin O'Malley,
Rhys Ruddock,
David Kearney,
Mark Flanagan,
Conor Gilsenan
Officials Referee: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Assistant Referees: Tim Hayes, Martyn Lewis (both WRU)
TMO: Nigel Whitehouse (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-08-31