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RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 16th January 2010, 18:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, Highlights RTE2 21:30

Leinster supporters have been going through cold turkey for the last three weeks. It's one thing having no Leinster matches when we have Ireland matches as a replacement, but having nothing at all has been tough. There have been reports of roving bands of desperate Leinster fans roaming from place to place in search of their fix of rugby like characters in a Gus Van Sant movie. But now the snow has gone, hopefully for good for this season at least, and the RDS is back in business tomorrow evening.

On paper at least Leinster will be big favourites for tomorrow's match. Brive are out of the tournament and haven't earned a single point in the pool so far. However since a change of coach in November, their recent form has been good and they've won four out of their last five matches in the Top 14. This run includes fine wins over Toulouse and Perpignan and they've moved from potential relegation battlers to outsiders for a top four slot. A top six slot to qualify for next season's Heineken Cup is probably a more realistic target, but there's no doubt they'll be much more confident than the team who folded meekly in the home match in October.

When French teams are out of the Heineken Cup, the norm is to send reserve teams out for their remaining fixtures and concentrate on their domestic competition. Brive have somewhat bucked the trend then, as they've named quite a strong team for tomorrow. While it's by no means their strongest side, with Alexis Palisson, Andy Goode, Riki Flutey and Gerhard Vosloo either rested or injured, it's certainly not the reserves either. More than half the team would be regular starters and so they'll have to be respected.

Their backrow is particularly strong with Welsh international Alix Popham, Fabien Domingo and the impressive South African Antoine Claassen who captains the team. Irishman Damien Browne provides bulk in the second row and English World Cup winner Steve Thompson starts at hooker. Former Toulouse full-back Nicolas Jeanjean plays on the right wing and Jamie Noon and Lachlan Mackay make up a combative and physical midfield.

In a way, it's probably better for Leinster that Brive have named a strong team as it will concentrate their minds on the job at hand. Last year Castres sent over a reserve team and while Leinster won comfortably enough, it was a very sluggish performance and the bonus point went begging. In their last match before their enforced 'winter break', Leinster played a weakened Ulster team and they were unhappy with their performance. With better finishing Ulster could have won the match and there was a big drop-off from the excellence of the performances against the Scarlets. So, it will be no bad thing for the Leinster players to be going into the match with something to prove.

Coach Michael Cheika has been able to select from his strongest possible squad this season with only long-term injury victim Luke Fitzgerald unavailable. CJ van der Linde has recovered sufficiently from his calf injury to take his place on the bench and he'll be hopeful of getting a decent run. The big news though is the selection of Shane Jennings ahead of Sean O'Brien at open-side flanker. Ideally Jennings would have gotten a run last week, but that was not to be and Cheika has made the call to start him this week.

After three months out Jennings will probably only last fifty or sixty minutes, but he'll need that to be in contention to start next week. It's a bit tough on young Sean O'Brien, who's been superb in Jennings' absence, but Jennings is a big leader in the squad and he'll be looking to exert his influence at the breakdown from the start.

Other than that, the team is selected pretty much as expected, with Jonathan Sexton returning from his hand jersey in place of Shaun Berne, who drops to the bench. Berne has covered superbly in the number ten jersey and Sexton knows he will need to hit the ground running too. It's Sexton's 50th Leinster appearance as it is Cian Healy's and the third landmark is that Shane Horgan becomes the first Leinster player to make 75 Heineken Cup appearances.

In the aftermath of the win over Harlequins in last season's quarter-final, it went largely un-noticed that it was the first time in a decade a fully fit Horgan hadn't featured in a major Leinster game. Horgan was on the bench, but like the rest of the replacements that day, he never made it onto the field. It must have played on his mind that, as with the Ireland Grand Slam, he could miss out when Leinster finally won the main prize.

However, a ill-timed case of the mumps for Rob Kearney gave Horgan a way back in for the Munster semi-final and since then he's played out of his skin. It's therefore a fitting honour that Horgan should become the first Leinster player to reach this landmark and he'd love to mark it with a try that would break Denis Hickie's Leinster try-scoring record.

For Leinster the big question is whether they'll be rusty after three weeks with no rugby. In truth, it's bound to be a bit scrappy early on, especially if the weather is wet and windy. As with the game in Brive, the Leinster pack will need to get on top early, particularly in the set-piece and discourage any resistance. If Brive get to the second half within a score or two, they may well be inspired, but if Leinster can build up a solid lead, you can imagine Brive heads dropping and their attentions turning to other more meaningful games.

The first half may be a bit messy but Leinster should be able to pull away in the second half to gain the points they need.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Scott Spedding
Shane Horgan 14 Nicolas Jeanjean
Brian O'Driscoll 13 Jamie Noon
Gordon d'Arcy 12 Lachlan Mackay
Isa Nacewa 11 Horacio Agulla
Jonathan Sexton 10 Luciano Orquera
Eoin Reddan 9 Jean-Baptiste Pejoine

Cian Healy 1 Pablo Henn
John Fogarty 2 Steve Thompson
Stan Wright
3 Pascal Idieder
Leo Cullen (C) 4 Retief Uys
Nathan Hines 5 Damien Browne
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Alix Popham
Shane Jennings 7 Fabien Domingo
Jamie Heaslip 8 Antoine Claassen (C)

Replacements Bernard Jackman 16 Guillaume Ribes
Mike Ross
17 Petrisor Toderasc
CJ van der Linde 18 Christian Short
Malcolm O'Kelly 19 Simon Azoulai
Sean O'Brien 20 Shaun Perry
Paul O'Donohoe 21 Viliame Waqaseduadua
Shaun Berne 22 Regis Bianco
Girvan Dempsey
23 Pat Barnard

Not considered due to injury Luke Fitzgerald

Match Officials Referee: Andrew Small (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Dean Richards (RFU), Stuart Terheege (RFU)
4th Official: John Montayne (ARLB)
5th Official: Wayne Sheridan (ARLB)
TMO: Geoff Warren

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-01-15