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Leinster Rugby vs Saracens
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Saturday, 15 January 2011, 13:30

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights 21.15 RTE2

Leinster enter round five of their toughest pool ever in the Heineken Cup with the finish line in sight. Their three wins and a losing bonus point in their first four matches has put them in prime position to win the pool, but they still have work to do to qualify for the quarter-finals. Assuming Clermont beat a weakened Racing Metro line-up tonight but don't get a four-try bonus point, a Leinster win tomorrow will win them the group. If Clermont do win with a bonus point, Leinster will have to win with a bonus point themselves in order to top the pool with a game to spare. As the Clermont match is on tonight, Leinster will know exactly what they need to do come kick-off, but you get the feeling that Joe Schmidt will just be happy with a win of any sort.

Schmidt has been emphasising the message all week that Saracens are still in with a chance of qualifying for the quarter-finals but while mathematically possible, it's highly unlikely a team with only three wins will win this pool. However, that doesn't mean they're to be taken lightly as they showed when they went to Paris and beat Racing Metro in round four. In Leinster's win over Saracens at Wembley, there was only a kick between the two teams. In the aftermath of that match, their director of rugby Brendan Venter made a bit of a fool of himself with his bitter whinging about a referee who had penalised Leinster off the park. He followed this up with a bizarre interview following the home defeat to Racing Metro, where he was attempting to mimic a character from the film Mike Bassett: England Manager.

Venter has undoubtedly done a good job of improving Saracens as a team but all these off-field incidents had mounted up and perhaps they contributed to his departure from the job last week. The official reason was family issues in South Africa and he's going to remain involved as a 'consultant' but former Ulster and Ireland player Mark McCall has moved up from assistant to take the main job. McCall won't be half as controversial as Venter but he might give them a steadier presence at the helm. Though the European campaign has been a disappointment for them, Saracens are in good nick in the Aviva Premiership, lying in second place with nine wins from fourteen games. As a team, Saracens have some of Venter's stubborn character and they certainly won't roll over and die tomorrow. With English teams, they nearly always keep it honest in terms of effort and Saracens will be no different.

Schmidt will be keen to dispel any notions of complacency within his squad, especially after their performance last week against the Ospreys. Though Leinster managed to win, that was more to do with poor Dan Biggar having a nightmare with his kicking. After he hit the crossbar with a sitter from in front of the posts Biggar missed another four shots at goal and Leinster won a game they didn't really deserve to. Whether they under-estimated the Ospreys line-up or were holding back with tomorrow's game in mind, Leinster's attitude wasn't right from the start. There was no intensity there and they were murdered at the breakdown, something that forward's coach Jonno Gibbes will have taken as a personal insult. You can bet your bottom dollar that Gibbes will have been beasting his pack all week out of retribution. In that respect it's perhaps no bad thing that last week's performance was so poor as it will have contributed to a narky week of training, which is often the best preparation for a big match.

Leinster make three changes to the team that started against the Ospreys. Jamie Heaslip's ankle injury has ruled him out so he'll miss his first Heineken Cup match since Glasgow at home in January 2006. He'd started 36 European games in a row for Leinster, remarkable for a forward considering the attrition rate in the modern game. A player of his stature will always be missed, but Leinster are lucky to be able to bring in a player of the quality of Sean O'Brien to replace him. O'Brien has been sensational this season whether wearing the six or eight jersey and his abrasive ball-carrying was badly missed last week. Dominic Ryan has been entrusted with the number six jersey and Kevin McLaughlin gets the spot on the bench over the unfortunate Rhys Ruddock. It's tough on Ruddock but McLaughlin's experience just gets him the nod.

The other change in the pack is the return of Nathan Hines in the second row in place of Devin Toner. Again Toner has played very well over the last few weeks and might feel hard done by, but Hines's physicality and experience will be vital against a tough Sarries pack. In the backs Isa Nacewa is back at full-back in place of Luke Fitzgerald, who drops to the bench. There was a lot of speculation as to whether Fitzgerald would be moved to the left wing, but Fergus McFadden holds onto his spot and with his recent form he's earned it. In other tight calls Cian Healy and Eoin Reddan get the nod over Heinke van der Merwe and Isaac Boss and these selections show Schmidt wants to play a similar high tempo game to the one that beat Clermont at home.

Saracens have made four changes to the team that beat London Irish last weekend. Jacques Burger, Deon Carstens and Alex Goode all picked up injuries in that match and so have to drop out. Goode is replaced by the experienced Nils Mordt who makes up a back three with England wing David Strettle and young James Short. Michael Tagicakibau and Brad Barritt form a powerful and quick centre pairing. There's another England international in Richard Wigglesworth at scrum-half and he partners Owen Farrell, the son of Rugby League great Andy Farrell, who's now a coach at the club. Though only nineteen years old, Farrell has impressed a lot of people with the maturity he's shown since coming into the fly-half role as replacement for long-term injury victim Derick Hougaard.

In the pack young Rhys Gill is brought in as replacement for Carstens and he'll have his work cut out in the scrums against an in-form Mike Ross. Equally Cian Healy struggled at times against Carlos Nieto at Wembley so he'll be looking to show that his scrummaging has come on since then. Schalk Brits at hooker is their main ball carrier with his remarkable pace and he'll be looking to have a great match so he can hold his head up in the pubs in Dublin afterwards on his stag night. In the second row, grizzled veteran Hugh Vyvyan comes in for Mouritz Botha to partner captain Steve Borthwick. In the back row they have a quality replacement for Burger in Ernst Joubert, who's inclusion means Kelly Brown moves to blindside flanker with Andy Saull retained on the openside. Recent celebrity dancer Gavin Henson is on the bench and may feature at some stage. Despite their injury problems it's a strong Saracens team that's not to be under-estimated.

Heineken Cup matches are always tense occasions and with so much on the line tomorrow for Leinster it will be even more so. Tomorrow's referee Romain Poite is a bit of an odd one and the breakdown and scrum could be free-for-alls. So Leinster will need to keep their cool and adapt to the referee as they go along. After last week's lethargic performance it's hard to imagine them being that slack again so hopefully Leinster will tear into Saracens from the first whistle.

It's a sell-out tomorrow and the RDS will be crackling with atmosphere despite the early kick-off. It will be a tough game but Leinster should have enough about them to earn the vital win they need.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Nils Mordt
Shane Horgan
14 David Strettle
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Michael Tagicakibau
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Brad Barritt
Fergus McFadden 11 James Short
Jonathan Sexton
10 Owen Farrell
Eoin Reddan
9 Richard Wigglesworth

Cian Healy
1 Rhys Gill
Richardt Strauss
2 Schalk Brits
Mike Ross
3 Carlos Nieto
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Steve Borthwick (C)
Nathan Hines
5 Hugh Vyvyan
Dominic Ryan
6 Kelly Brown
Shane Jennings
7 Andy Saull
Sean O'Brien
8 Ernst Joubert

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright
16 Jamie George
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Jared Saunders
Clint Newland
18 Petrus du Plessis
Devin Toner
19 Hayden Smith
Kevin McLaughlin
20 Justin Melck
Isaac Boss
21 Neil de Kock
Ian Madigan
22 Gavin Henson
Luke Fitzgerald
23 Noah Cato

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stan Wright,
Rob Kearney,
Paul Ryan,
Jamie Heaslip

Derick Hougaard,
Adam Powell,
Jacques Burger,
Deon Carstens,
Alex Goode
Officials Referee: Roman Poite (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Laurent Cardona, Patrick Pechambert (both FFR)
4th Official: Brian MacNeice (IRFU)
5th Official: Ed Kenny (IRFU)
TMO: Jean-Christophe Gastou (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23