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Leinster Rugby vs Bath Rugby
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 17th December 2011, 18:00

Television: Live: Sky Sports 1 Highlights: TG4 21.15

In a major golf tournament the Saturday is called 'moving day', in that the players who are going to contend move into position and others drop away. The fourth week of the Heineken Cup pool stages is quite similar. By the end of it, everyone has a good idea of who's going to get out of their groups and who can basically concentrate on their domestic competition for the rest of the season.

The fourth week is also the second part of the 'double-header'. It's become a unique and special part of the Heineken Cup season. Apart from the rare two-legged play-off to solve promotion/relegation, it's really the only time in rugby two club teams get to square off against each other two weeks in a row. It's been shown repeatedly in the history of the tournament how important it is to get the upper hand in these two games.

The team that gets the better in the head-to-head record in these two middle games generally are the more likely to get out of the pool. Leinster have had some mixed experiences in these double headers. Three times they've hammered French clubs at home in week three (Bourgoin twice and Castres) only to struggle in week four against the same teams (losing twice and only winning narrowly the other time). The biggest disaster though was against Edinburgh four seasons ago when they beat them 28-14 at home only to lose 29-10 away the following week. That defeat meant they were effectively out of Europe before Christmas and it was one of the lowest points in Leinster's professional history. So in a way last week's frustrating win away to Bath was perfect preparation for the return match in the Aviva stadium on Saturday.

First of all, Leinster won, and away wins in Europe always have to be respected. They weren't happy with their performance though, especially with the number of try chances they blew. If any one of these had been converted, you got the sense that Leinster would have won at a canter. However with only a six-point lead Leinster were always susceptible to a breakaway try and in fairness to Bath, they scored a fine one from a turnover. To Leinster's credit though, they didn't panic for a second. They knew what they had to do and they got back down the pitch and put the pressure back on Bath. Their captain Francois Louw snapped and gave away two soft penalties which Jonny Sexton coolly converted to seal the win. However, you could tell by the players' demeanour as they left the pitch that they were far from elated.

The video session on Tuesday wouldn't have been pretty and it will have resulted in some fairly narky training sessions this week. The players will be pressuring each other to get things right and guys who missed out on selection last week will have been pressing their claims to get a chance instead.

Joe Schmidt has thought it all out and has decided to made six changes to his starting line-up including two positional switches. A number of these changes were predictable enough in that we've seen how Schmidt has a 'home team' and an 'away team' in his mind for the pool stages at least. So as with the Glasgow home match we see Eoin Reddan come in for Isaac Boss at scrum-half and Devin Toner come in for Damian Browne in the second row. The big news is that Gordon D'Arcy is demoted to the bench with Fergus McFadden moving to inside centre and Eoin O'Malley shifting to the outside channel. D'Arcy is apparently carrying a minor niggle, but this may also be due to the fact that the backline just seems to work better with O'Malley at thirteen.

The last change sees Shane Jennings come in to start his first Heineken Cup match since the Racing Metro match in Paris last January. Jennings will take his customary slot at open-side which means Sean O'Brien can move back to his preferred blindside slot. It's tough on Kevin McLaughlin, who provides an enormous work-rate and a real lineout presence, but this always looks Leinster's most balanced backrow. Another surprise is that Cian Healy doesn't start after his barn-storming second half performance last week. It's rumoured that he's carrying a knock though so perhaps that explains it, although Leinster are hardly struggling in the position with Heinke van der Merwe in the jersey. Healy takes his place on another hugely impressive Leinster bench with McLaughlin, D'Arcy, Sean Cronin, Nathan White, Rhys Ruddock, Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss. Once again, they possess the firepower to really up the pace in the last twenty minutes.

For Bath, their reaction to last week was actually quite positive. Such has been their poor form of late that even running the European champions close was seen as a plus. The defeat puts them under huge pressure in terms of qualification from the pool though as they've now got to win all their remaining games. You know you'll always get an honest effort from an English team yet you'd wonder if they'll be able for it physically. They were clearly blowing hard in the last twenty minutes of Sunday's game and with only a six-day turnaround, that's always harder on the team that has to travel.

They've made just the one personnel change to the team that started last week with the injured Dan Hipkiss dropping out and former Leicester team-mate Sam Vesty coming in. Vesty starts at full back and Matt Banahan shifts to outside centre and Nick Abendanon moves to the left wing. Banahan was quite a handful last week and he showed great skill in the build-up to his try so he'll be a serious test for O'Malley in the centre. However he's gone up against big men like Aurelien Rougerie and Casey Laulala in the past and done well so he won't be intimidated.

Bath will feel they have nothing to lose and will come out firing. However you feel that Leinster will be seriously up for it and with 46,000 tickets sold they'll be playing in front of the second biggest crowd for a Heineken Cup pool match. As with the Clermont game last season, it should be fairly cold but Leinster will hopefully produce a similarly powerhouse performance and earn the win which will give them a stranglehold on the group.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Bath Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney 15 Sam Vesty
Isa Nacewa 14 Jack Cuthbert
Eoin O'Malley 13 Matt Banahan
Fergus McFadden 12 Olly Barkley
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Nick Abendanon
Jonathan Sexton 10 Stephen Donald
Eoin Reddan 9 Michael Claassens

Heinke van der Merwe 1 David Flatman
Richardt Strauss
2 Chris Biller
Mike Ross 3 David Wilson
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Dave Attwood
Devin Toner
5 Ryan Caldwell
Sean O'Brien 6 Francois Louw (C)
Shane Jennings
7 Guy Mercer
Jamie Heaslip
8 Simon Taylor

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Ross Batty
Cian Healy 17 Nathan Catt
Nathan White 18 Anthony Perenise
Kevin McLaughlin 19 Will Spencer
Rhys Ruddock 20 Andy Beattie
Isaac Boss 21 Chris Cook
Ian Madigan 22 Tom Heathcote
Gordon D'Arcy 23 Ben Williams

Not Considered
due to Injury
Mat Berquist,
Shane Horgan,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Dominic Ryan,
Simon Shawe,
Eamonn Sheridan

Lewis Moody,
Stuart Hooper,
Mark McMillan,
Lee Mears,
Pieter Dixon,
Ross Batty,
Ben Shirving,
Dan Hipkiss
Officials Referee: Romain Poite (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Patrick Pechambert, Eric Soulan (both FFR),
4th Official: Kevin Beggs (IRFU),
5th Official: Dermot Blake (IRFU),
TMO: Daniel Gillet (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-12-16