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Leinster Rugby vs London Irish
Royal Dublin Society Showground, Dublin
Friday, 9th October 2009, 20:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 2, Highlights RTE2 23.25

Leinster kick off their defence of the Heineken Cup against London Irish this Friday evening. After last week's destruction of Munster, Leinster will be full of confidence. However, good at that performance was, they must put it out of their minds because that victory will feel pretty hollow were they to slip up in the next two weeks.

When this group was announced, the reaction from Leinster fans was pretty positive and certainly it could have been worse. However the way the games are laid out has made things a bit tougher. They have their hardest home match up first, followed by difficult away trips to France and Wales. Going by previous seasons, they'll need to win at least two of these three games to be in any sort of position to qualify, so they don't need to create a rod for their backs in the first week. A win tomorrow is vital.

London Irish have already beaten Leinster in Dublin this year, winning 24-8 in a pre-season match at Donnybrook in August. Admittedly, it will be a very different Leinster team that started that day, but Leinster will still remember it as it was far from a "friendly" with plenty of off-the-ball incidents and four yellow cards. In truth, London Irish dominated Leinster physically that day, bullying them up front. Leinster will take a useful amount of spite from that to use as motivation.

London Irish come into the match in fine form. An opening day loss to Saracens has been followed with four straight wins to leave them in second place in the Guinness Premiership. For the last number of seasons London Irish have become known for playing some fantastic attacking rugby, but in recent years they've also added a harder edge. They've built a big mean pack which means they can now win ugly as well as pretty. You need to only look at their win away to Sale last Friday for proof of this. It was a miserable wet Manchester night, but they still slogged their way to a win.

Their captain Bob Casey leads from the front. Casey began his career at Leinster alongside his Blackrock schoolmate Leo Cullen, so it's ironic that they'll now be facing each other in the trenches as captains of the respective teams. Casey may be under-rated in the eyes of certain Irish National coaches but they know his worth over in England. His second row partner Nick Kennedy may be the more athletic player but Casey plays a major part in making London Irish one of the best lineouts in the Guinness Premiership. He also play a big part in their scrum, which features Southern Hemisphere internationals Clarke Dermody and Faan Rautenbach along with England's David Paice at hooker. They clearly fancy themselves in the scrum and did a number on the Leinster unit in Donnybrook.

Their backrow features an interesting mix of players. Tongan international Chris Hala'ufia is a hard-running number eight with an appetite for stirring things up, while the long serving Declan Danaher is a classy number six with an eye for the try-line. At open-side Steffon Armitage is built more like a hooker, but Leinster would be foolish to doubt the pace or power of the pocket battle-ship. As a unit they dominated Leinster at the breakdown in Donnybrook and they will see no reason why they can't do it again.

The London Irish backline is also impressive, even though they've injuries to main men like Delon Armitage and Topsy Ojo plus the prolific young winger Adam Thompstone, who sadly broke his ankle last week. Paul Hodgson is the form scrum-half in the Premiership who can expect England honours in the Autumn Internationals. He partners the experienced Chris Malone who, perhaps with a nod to the expected wet conditions, gets the nod ahead of the more adventurous Ryan Lamb. Samoans Elvis Seveali'I and Seilala Mapusua form an experienced and powerful centre partnership and another Samoan, Sailosi Tagicakibau is their dangerman on the wing with six tries in five games already this season. With the injuries in the back three, young Tom Homer starts on the right wing, although he played very well there when required last season so that won't necessarily be a weakness. Experienced full-back Peter Hewat completes a fine side.

So Leinster know they will be up against it and they will need to reproduce the quality of the performance of last week. It was as complete a performance as Leinster have given in the professional era. What really set it apart was the sheer, hard-nosed aggression of Leinster in everything they did. With Munster expected to come out breathing fire after the Croke Park Semi-final, it was actually Leinster who seemed more up for it. The aggression was incredibly focused and they put it into every tackle with some incredible big hits setting the tone for the whole match. After being "nilled" in the home fixture last season, it was sweet revenge for Leinster to return the favour.

Not surprisingly the starting team from last week is retained en bloc, save for Mike Ross replacing the injured Stan Wright at tight-head prop. The in-form Wright is certainly a loss, but it says a lot for the quality of the squad that they can bring in Ross. He is a scrummager with a big reputation from his days in the Guinness Premiership with Harlequins and his experience of facing the London Irish front row will come in handy. Leinster can also spring CJ van der Linde from the bench who comes in alongside Ronnie McCormack in the new expanded 23-man Heineken Cup squad. CJ has been effectively out of action since January and he'll be itching to get involved. The only other change to the bench is the return of Shaun Berne in place of Fergus McFadden.

With the weather expected to be pretty bad it may well end up as a battle between the packs and the place-kickers. In the past Leinster may have shuddered at that thought but no longer, Leinster will happily try to win it through the forwards if they have to. London Irish will present a serious challenge and the battle at the breakdown will be ferocious, but Leinster have a hunger about them at the moment that will hopefully see them prevail.

And hopefully they will be roared to victory by another noisy RDS crowd, who were magnificent last Saturday (despite what some hypocritical whingers in the media might say!) Keep up the good work!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
London Irish
Teams Isa Nacewa 15 Peter Hewat
Shane Horgan 14 Tom Homer
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Elvis Seveali'I
Gordon d'Arcy
12 Seilala Mapusua
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Sailosi Tagicakiba
Jonathan Sexton
10 Chris Malone
Eoin Reddan
9 Paul Hodgson

Cian Healy 1 Clarke Dermody
John Fogarty
2 David Paice
Mike Ross
3 Faan Rautenbach
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Nick Kennedy
Nathan Hines
5 Bob Casey (C)
Kevin McLaughlin
6 Declan Danaher
Shane Jennings 7 Steffon Armitage
Jamie Heaslip
8 Chris Hala'ufia

Replacements Bernard Jackman
16 Danie Coetzee
Ronnie McCormack 17 Dan Murphy
CJ van der Linde 18 Paulica Ion
Malcolm O'Kelly
19 Andy Perry
Sean O'Brien
Richard Thorpe
Simon Keogh
21 Ryan Lamb
Shaun Berne
22 Jamie Lennard
Rob Kearney
23 Alfredo Lalanne

Not considered
due to injury
Eoin O'Malley
Stan Wright
Trevor Hogan

Match Officials

Referee: Romain Poite (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Eric Soulan (FFR), Bernard Dal Maso (FFR)
4th Official: Paul Haycock (ARLB)
5th Official: Ken Henley-Willis (ARLB)
TMO: Jean Christophe Gastou (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-10-11