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Scarlets vs Leinster Rugby
Parc Y Scarlets, Llanelli
2009-09-05, 18:30

European Champions Leinster kick off their season with a tough away trip to the Sca......

Wait a minute, let's just have that again......




......ah yeah there it is!

It was a long time coming, so let's savour that title for as long as we have it!

Since that wonderful day in Edinburgh last May, Leinster fans simply haven't known what to do with themselves. Their normal summer sport of bitter recrimination and hopeless despair was replaced by a beatific calm that only comes with true satisfaction of success. But, what of this season? Where can Leinster go from here, especially without the mighty contribution of Rocky Elsom and Felipe Contepomi not to mention the huge influence of Chris Whitaker?

Well those three will certainly be missed, no doubt. But it also has to be remembered that Leinster won the Heineken Cup despite not actually playing particularly well for a large portion of the season. Leinster got through most of the season on the back of a superb defensive effort and got used to grinding out tight wins. However those tight wins were ground out through necessity as too often the offence couldn't generate enough points to put matches away when they should have been. So imagine if the Leinster backline can fire from the start of the season and not wait until April? With the talent that's already there, added to what's coming through from the academy, that's not an unrealistic hope. If we can retain the defensive solidity, but add some of the old-style attacking prowess, Leinster can go onto another level this season.

Further grounds for optimism come in the form of the new arrivals. The front five has been hugely strengthened with the arrival of Scottish international & Lions lock Nathan Hines, Irish prop Mike Ross and South African hooker Richardt Strauss. If CJ van der Linde can resolve his fitness problems then we'll have strength in depth in the front row like we've never had before. We can put out two completely different front fives, both of which you'd trust to compete at the top level.

No direct backrow replacement has been signed for Rocky, but perhaps that's a vote of confidence in Sean O'Brien, Stephen Keogh and Kevin McLaughlin, not to mention Paul Ryan and the hotly tipped Ruddock brothers in the academy.

With Contepomi and Whitaker gone, we'll be looking at a new half back partnership. Jonny Sexton will be hoping to cement his place at Leinster's number 10, he's been flirting with it long enough, hopefully he'll now nail it down with consistent performances, especially with his goal-kicking. Eoin Reddan has been recruited from Wasps and he'll be a man on a mission to prove himself worthy of a place in Declan Kidney's Ireland squad. Although he won't have things all his own way at scrum-half as Paul O'Donohue is a young man in a hurry after his promotion from the academy. Shaun Berne is another astute signing who'll provide experienced back-up across the backline, essentially the role that Christian Warner used to fill for Leinster.

In the outside backs it's a case of hoping to see even more from Fergus McFadden, while the likes of Shane Monahan, Niall Morris and Brendan Macken will be hoping to capitalise on the good impression they made in pre-season. Eoin O'Malley is another young hopeful who'll be desperate to make an impact once he returns to full fitness. Leinster's Lions contingent will be back in a few weeks, so it's really the time for the young bucks to shine.

Overall, there are plenty of grounds for optimism for Leinster fans. Scarlets fans, however, may be forgiven for having a less sunny disposition.

The last two seasons have been pretty tough for the Scarlets. While their new Parc y Scarlet stadium is fantastic, their fans haven't universally approved of the move there and attendances have been disappointing. On the pitch, things haven't been much better. For so long the Welsh flagship team in Europe, they've failed to qualify out of their group the last two times out, only winning one game along the way. The 2007 semi-final against Leicester, which they so nearly won, seems a long, long time ago. Their Magners League form has also been disappointing, falling away after a fine start last season for a second successive mid-table finish.

It's been a bit of a tumultuous off-season. They've had something of a clear-out with Kees Meuws, Simon Maling and Nathan Thomas leaving along with Daffyd James and forwards coach Paul Moriarty who both left on far less amicable terms. They've done some solid recruitment though. Scottish international Sean Lamont has arrived from Northampton and Welsh international prop Rhys Thomas has joined from the Dragons. Former Osprey open-side Richie Pugh has also been signed and he'll be hoping to restart what once looked a very promising career.

The Scarlets have included all three in their starting side for Saturday. Lamont starts on the right wing, which sees Welsh international Mark Jones switch to the left wing. Jones captains the sides in place of Stephen Jones who's rested after Lions duties. Young Daniel Evans starts at full-back with Rob Higgitt and Jonathan Davies in the centre. Martin Roberts was the Scarlets best player last season and he partners Rhys Priestland at half back.

Pugh starts in the backrow alongside David Lyons and former Ireland international Simon Easterby who's recently taken over as forwards coach. There's a young second row in Lou Reed and Dominic Day, but more experience in the front row with Rhys Thomas and his namesake Iestyn with Ken Owens in between. Overall, it's a fine team although Leinster will still fancy their chances.

Leinster have named a strong team with a mixture of youth and experience. Girvan Dempsey, Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa make up an experienced back three with Fergus McFadden and new signing Shaun Berne in midfield. Jonny Sexton and Chris Keane are the half-backs with Paul O'Donohue on the bench. In the pack it's the same front five that started the Heineken Cup final, save for John Fogarty starting at hooker in place of Bernard Jackman, who's bracketed on the bench with Jason Harris-Wright. The backrow is interesting with Stephen Keogh starting at eight and Kevin McLaughlin starting on the blindside. Some fans may wonder if they would go better if those two swapped jerseys. Vice Captain Shane Jennings completes the team. Sean O'Brien has to be content with a place on the bench alongside Niall Morris who will be hoping to make his senior competitive debut.

Leinster have traditionally been slow-starters, especially when that start has been on the road. It would be wrong to read too much into the London Irish match last week, but a similar performance at the breakdown would be disastrous, especially with Easterby sniffing around. Leinster will be favourites on paper but this may prove a tricky enough opener.

Jim O'Connor

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Daniel Evans
15 Girvan Dempsey
Sean Lamont
14 Shane Horgan
Rob Higgitt
13 Fergus McFadden
Jonathan Davies
12 Shaun Berne
Mark Jones (C)
11 Isa Nacewa
Rhys Priestland
10 Jonathan Sexton
Martin Roberts
9 Chris Keane

Iestyn Thomas
1 Cian Healy
Ken Owens
2 John Fogarty
Rhys Thomas
3 Stanley Wright
Lou Reed
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Dominic Day
5 Malcolm O'Kelly
Simon Easterby
6 Kevin McLaughlin
Simon Pugh
7 Shane Jennings
David Lyons
8 Stephen Keogh

Replacements Phil Thomas
16 Bernard Jackman / Jason Harris Wright
Emyr Phillips
17 Mike Ross
Deacon Manu
18 Devin Toner
VErnon Cooper
19 Sean O'Brien
Dafydd Jones
20 Paul O'Donohue
Lee Williams
21 Simon Keogh
Dan Newton
22 Niall Morris
Not considered
due to injury

Eoin O'Malley
Eoin Reddan
CJ van der Linde
Trevor Hogan

Referee: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Assistant Referees: Jon Mason (WRU), Colin Kirkhouse (WRU)
TMO: Tony Rowlands (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-09-05