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Leinster Rugby vs Leicester Tigers
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 9 April 2011, 18:00

Television: Live - Sky Sports 2, Highlights: RTE2 21.30

All good things must come to an end!

Last week, Leinster's five-game winning streak against their biggest rivals was ended by an excellent second half fight-back from Munster. Losing by a point in Thomond Park is of course no disgrace, but Leinster will rue that they let an 11-point half-time lead slip away. True, they got nothing off the very poor referee Andrew Small in the second half, but they didn't make things easy on themselves either.

With Munster's blood up, they needed to play territory and pin them back. Instead they kept trying to run the ball from their own half. They lost their shape and started playing as individuals. Most importantly, their intensity dropped and they handed Munster the momentum. Munster still lacked a cutting edge, but they fought like dogs for everything in the second half and ultimately, they deserved their narrow win.

Perhaps with such a commanding half-time lead, Leinster allowed their attention to drift towards tomorrow's match. For as much as they wanted to win last week, the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leicester is the biggest game of the season. The silver lining from last week's defeat is that it was probably the best preparation they could get for this week. If they had won at a canter in Thomond Park, as they looked like doing at half-time, they would have had their heads filled with tributes all week.

However, losing the way they did will have made the squad ask some very tough questions of each other. In short, training will have been properly narky, with no doubt a few square-ups breaking out from time to time. There is no better way to prepare to play Leicester, a team who've practically cornered the market in 'narky rugby'.

Leicester are tough! Tough, awkward bastards! They always have been. They pride themselves on it. They don't just want to beat the opposition, they want to grind them into the dirt. And they love to pat them on the head with a smirk on their face while they do it. If that makes them unpopular, then that's all the better. They feed on a siege mentality of "everyone hates us, we don't care!"

They're tough on each other too. Their training sessions were once so brutal that players would look forward to matches for a rest from the carnage. The fitness people's opinions finally won out and the sessions aren't as manic as they once were but the attitude is still there. Once someone comes into their squad they're expected to throw themselves into training with no fear. It doesn't matter what age they are.

Ironically enough, that mentality played it's part in making Leinster what they are now. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings both spent two seasons at Welford Road. The two lads were a big hit, so much so that they were given the honour of lifting the Guinness Premiership trophy together in 2007, just before they left to come back home. However the club culture at Leicester had an even bigger impact on the two lads. They were determined to bring some of that ruthlessness and consistency back to Leinster and this was music to the ears of then coach Michael Cheika. It was a big part of developing the winning mentality that Leinster have today.

Leicester bring some serious form into the match having won nine out of their last ten games. They're on top of the Aviva Premiership, three points clear of second place Saracens, despite having one less win than them. They're ahead because of a remarkable haul of bonus points, ten in total, which is largely down to the 54 tries they've scored. The Heineken Cup pool form wasn't quite so impressive, although they were hit badly by injuries at that stage of the season. A home draw and away defeat to Perpignan cost them dearly and meant they ultimately had to rely on a high second place finish to qualify.

Much has been made of the presence of five of the English players who played in the defeat to Ireland three weeks ago. However it's unlikely to make much odds, in fact it will probably only spur those players on to make amends. Leicester coach Richard Cockerill has been playing up the underdogs tag all week but you can tell he doesn't really believe they're underdogs at all. They fully expect to come to Dublin and win, just like they did back in 2005 in the quarter-final. Leinster and Leicester have met ten times in the Heineken Cup and at the moment the record is dead even at five wins apiece. However when they've met in the knock-out stages, the record is 2-1 to Leicester.

Cockerill has made some interesting choices in his selection, making just two changes from the team that beat Harlequins. Louis Deacon comes in for Ed Slater to partner Tongan Steve Mafi in the second row and Boris Stankovich comes in at loosehead prop for the suspended Marcos Ayerza. Losing Ayerza is a blow as he's a world-class scrummager but Stankovich is a decent replacement. Cockerill has stuck with Dan Cole at tighthead prop with Italian Martin Castrogiovanni left on the bench. George Chuter provides plenty of experience at hooker.

In the back row Cockerill has surprisingly opted to retain Jordan Crane at number eight and keep Thomas Waldrom on the bench. Waldrom was probably their player of the season up to now, while Crane has seen his career stall somewhat in the last two years. It's a big call but Crane is a cocky sort who'll relish the challenge. He makes up the backrow with two top quality flankers in Kiwi Craig Newby, who captains the team in Geordan Murphy's absence, and England international Tom Croft. It's a big, mobile unit and their battle with their Leinster counterparts will be crucial.

Toby Flood and Ben Youngs are the half-backs and they'll be eager to show their true quality after they both struggled badly in the England match. They've two seriously big units to launch at the Leinster defence in the Tuilagi brothers, Alesana and Manu. Alesana is one of the biggest wingers around and Manu is a very promising young centre who's fought his way into the England squad. There is subtlety there too though in the shape of Anthony Allen, who's that rarest of things; an English centre with skill and pace who doesn't just bash the ball up. He's re-launched his career at Leicester after being let go by Gloucester and he's had a fantastic season. Argentinean wing Horacio Agulla has good memories of playing against Irish teams having scored a try against Ireland in the World Cup and full-back Scott Hamilton is simply a class act. It's a top quality all-round team.

For Leinster the only change to the team that started last week is the return of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half in place of Isaac Boss. It's a little tough on Boss, who's recent form has been excellent, but most of Leinster's best performances this season have been with Reddan at scrum-half so it's probably the right call. Shane Jennings would have loved to play against his old team but it was judged too big a risk to throw him in after two months out so the backrow is unchanged from the last day, with Dominic Ryan on the bench instead of Rhys Ruddock. The only other change to the bench is the return from injury of Jason Harris-Wright is place of Aaron Dundon.

Leicester play a hugely physical game but they also know how to spin it wide when it's on. Leinster are going to have to recreate the type of performance they gave when they beat Clermont at home. They will need to front up at the breakdown and put pressure on their half-backs so they can't get their ball carriers motoring. Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien were both quiet by their own high standards last week and they will be looking to dominate at the contact area.

The forecast is for a warm, sunny evening so it's set up for a very entertaining game. Leinster showed what a good team they are earlier in the season by getting out of such a tough group in style. That will all be forgotten though if they fail to win tomorrow. Leicester will push them to the limit but if they bring their A game, then they can do it. It's going to be unbelievably intense but if the boys stand up to be counted tomorrow then they'll win.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Leicester Tigers
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Scott Hamilton
Shane Horgan
14 Horacio Agulla
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Manu Tuilagi
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Anthony Allen
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Alesana Tuilagi
Jonathan Sexton
10 Toby Flood
Eoin Reddan
9 Ben Youngs

Cian Healy
1 Boris Stankovic
Richardt Strauss
2 George Chuter
Mike Ross
3 Dan Cole
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Louis Deacon
Nathan Hines
5 Steve Mafi
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Tom Croft
Sean O'Brien
7 Craig Newby (C)
Jamie Heaslip
8 Jordan Crane

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Rob Hawkins
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Julian White
Stan Wright
18 Martin Castrogiovanni
Devin Toner
19 Ed Slater
Dominic Ryan
20 Thomas Waldrom
Isaac Boss
21 James Grindal
Ian Madigan 22 Jeremy Staunton
Fergus McFadden
23 Matt Smith

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Shane Jennings,
Stephen Keogh,
Andrew Conway


Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: James Jones, Jon Mason (both WRU)
4th Official: Colin Kirkhouse (WRU)
5th Official: Neil Ballard (WRU)
TMO: Derek Bevan (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-08-23

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