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Scarlets vs Leinster Rugby
RaboDirect Pro12 Round 1
Parc y Scarlet, Llanelli,
Friday, 6th September 2013, 19:05

Television: Live – BBC 2 Wales, Deferred Coverage RTE2 00:35

Matt O'Connor has arguably the toughest job in European rugby this season.

He's got a hard act to follow in Leinster's last two head coaches Michael Cheika and Joe Schmidt. His fellow Australian Cheika changed the whole culture of Leinster and brought home that precious first Heineken Cup. Cheika's replacement Schmidt built on the foundations laid down and added in a fair bit of style as Leinster conquered Europe twice more, playing rugby that had rugby fans all over the world purring in approval. Even in Schmidt's final season, the disappointment of an early exit from the Heineken Cup was compensated for by a first league win in 5 years with the added bonus of the Amlin Cup and a British and Irish cup win for the kids. So O'Connor will be under pressure to continue to bring silverware into the club.

O'Connor has an interesting and varied CV but unlike Schmidt, this will not be his first ever head coaching job as he did that in Japan. However he's most widely known as an assistant coach from his time at the Brumbies and as Richard Cockerill's number two at Leicester Tigers for the last four years, so his ability to work at the top man will be questioned if he doesn't have a good start, as Schmidt's was three years ago. His task is made all the more difficult by the departure of two of Leinster's most important players in Jonny Sexton and Isa Nacewa.

His hopes for a good start haven't been helped by the Pro12 fixtures secretary either as Leinster have to play four of the top six teams from last season in their first five games. They face difficult away trips to Glasgow and Munster and tricky home games against the Ospreys and Cardiff. As the Leinster squad will be relatively under-strength in terms of the availability of top internationals like Brian O'Driscoll, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip, he could be in for an anxious first few weeks. They begin their campaign for the third year running with a tough trip to Wales, this time to face the Scarlets as they did last season.

Both of the last two seasons' opening games ended in heavy defeats to the Ospreys and Scarlets respectively. Last season's trip to Parc y Scarlets was noticeable for the respective strength of the sides. The Scarlets had internationals such as George North, Scott Williams and Aaron Shingler starting and Rhys Priestland and Jonathan Davies on the bench. Leinster's far more callow line-up looked like lambs to the slaughter and so it proved with the Scarlets running in seven tries in a 45-20 win with wingers North and Andy Fenby grabbing a brace each.

North and Fenby are both gone now though along with other internationals like Matthew Rees and Tavis Knoyle. Even young out-half Owen Williams, one of their brightest hopes from last season, has decamped to Leicester Tigers. There hasn't been a whole lot of traffic in the opposite direction either. Steve Shingler has arrived from London Irish to join his brother Aaron, desperately hoping the local fans will forget about his efforts to declare for Scotland last year. In these circumstances it is somewhat surprising that Scottish international flanker John Barclay opted to leave Glasgow to join them, instead of going to England or France. He's the only signing of proven quality though and you could see the Scarlets struggling to repeat their top four finish from last season.

However, they've named a strong side with co-captain Rob McCusker leading the team as his fellow co-captain Jonathan Davies is given an extra week off after his busy Lions tour. McCusker leads a familiar-looking backrow with Aaron Shingler and Josh Turnbull in the flanker positions. George Earle and Jo Snyman are in the boiler room with a front row of Phil John, Ken Owens and Samson Lee in front of them. They have two former Ospreys in Gareth Owen and Kristian Phillips in the back three along with the ever-mouthy Liam Williams, a particular favourite of Leinster fans. Scott Williams and Steve Shingler make up a potent centre pairing and Rhys Priestland and Gareth Davies are the half-backs. Preistland will be desperate to reclaim the number ten jersey in the international team after an injury-ruined season last term. Young Jordan Williams is on the bench. He is something of a Youtube sensation with footage of some of his runs at the recent Junior World Cup and he could very well be one to watch for the future.

For Leinster it's generally a tough time at the start of the season but somewhat surprisingly they are able to include experienced internationals like Eoin Reddan, Fergus McFadden, Gordon D'Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald in the backline. Fitzgerald's return is particularly welcome and if any player deserves an injury-free season it's him. He makes up a back three with Dave Kearney and St. Marys RFC winger Darragh Fanning. Fanning has been given a short-term deal after one season with Connacht and a spell playing club rugby in Australia. He has looked pretty good in the pre-season games and will be itching to prove he should be given a longer-term deal. McFadden and D'Arcy are the centres and Reddan is back to partner new signing Jimmy Gopperth who makes his first competitive start.

In the pack academy graduates Jack McGrath and Martin Moore are the props with international hooker Sean Cronin in between them. It's Moore's first start at senior level and he'll be looking to make an impact while Michael Bent recovers from a neck injury. Tom Denton and Devin Toner are the starting second rows and Shane Jennings continues to captain the team from the backrow alongside Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy. There's some strength in reserve on the bench too in internationals Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy and Isaac Boss while Dominic Ryan and Brendan Macken could also make a dynamic impact.

There were positives in both Leinster's pre-season matches, despite losing both games. O'Connor would have been particularly heartened by the way his young team battled gamely against a near full-strength Northampton team that were expected to slaughter them. Their defensive effort was excellent and this is particularly important considering this is one area Leinster could really improve on this season (they conceded 59 tries last term).

O'Connor has a much stronger team at his disposal tomorrow than at this time last year; certainly good enough to be competitive and perhaps good enough to nick a sneaky win. Needless to say they will be rusty and it could well be quite a scrappy affair but any sort of win will give Leinster their first opening day victory in six seasons. That would put him one step ahead of Joe Schmidt, who never won on his opening day and would represent quite a tidy start for O'Connor.

Team Lineups


Leinster Rugby
Teams Gareth Owen
15 Dave Kearney
Liam Williams 14 Darragh Fanning
Scott Williams 13 Fergus McFadden
Steve Shingler
12 Gordon D'Arcy
Kristian Philips
11 Luke Fitzgerald
Rhys Priestland 10 Jimmy Gopperth
Gareth Davies
9 Eoin Reddan

Phil John
1 Jack McGrath
Ken Owens
2 Sean Cronin
Samson Lee 3 Martin Moore
George Earle 4 Tom Denton
Johan Snyman
5 Devin Toner
Aaron Shingler 6 Rhys Ruddock
Josh Turnbull 7 Shane Jennings (C)
Rob McCusker(C) 8 Jordi Murphy

Replacements Emyr Philips 16 Aaron Dundon
Rob Evans 17 Jack O'Connell
Jacobie Adriaanse 18 Mike Ross
Jake Ball 19 Mike McCarthy
Craig Price 20
Dominic Ryan
Rhodri Williams 21 Isaac Boss
Adam Warren 22 Noel Reid
Jordan Williams 23 Brendan Macken

Not Considered
due to Injury
Gareth Maule
Michael Bent,
Quinn Roux,
Andrew Goodman
Officials Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Ian Davies, Jon Mason (both WRU)
TMO: Derek Bevan (WRU)

by Jim O'Conor, © 2013-09-05