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Leinster Rugby vs Cardiff Blues
Heineken Cup Quarter-final
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Saturday, 7th April 2012, 17:45

Television: Live: Sky Sports 1, Highlights TG4 21.20

After what seems like a very long time, (it's eleven weeks actually) Leinster are back in Heineken Cup action tomorrow against Cardiff. Now all the niceties of the pool stages are over and it's pure knock-out rugby from now on. This ramps up the excitement of course, but also the nervousness. Last year Leinster took on Leicester Tigers at this stage and it was an achingly tense match. Leinster weren't at their best but they managed to dog their way through. This year, there hasn't been half as much nervousness amongst fans because Leinster are such raging hot favourites. However, being so strongly fancied can bring dangers of it's own, as we saw in last year's final against Northampton. Leinster's coaches have been bigging up Cardiff all week to keep minds focused and understandably so.

As warm-ups go, a win down in Thomond Park against Munster is as nice as it comes. Truth be told, it wasn't the greatest derby match ever and you had the clear sense that both teams had one eye firmly on their respective quarter-finals. However, wins in Limerick are rare and deserve to be celebrated and what's more it redressed the damage the home defeat to the Ospreys did. A win against Edinburgh next week will guarantee Leinster top spot and home advantage for the knock-out stages of the league. It would also allow them the luxury of resting players for the trips to Ulster and Dragons if they have a European semi-final to play in between those two games. However they've got to get to that semi-final first.

Cardiff couldn't have had a worse build-up to the match. First they named a strong team but then got stuffed 31-3 up in Glasgow, a defeat that all but ends their chances of a top four finish. Then good old Gavin 'Soap Opera' Henson gets into trouble for being drunk on the morning flight home the next day. Cardiff became the third club in less than a year to regret signing him and they sacked him on Monday. Perhaps there was an element of opportunism in their actions as Henson has really only been a peripheral figure in his time with the Blues.

If things weren't bad enough, the following day the news broke that superb centre Jamie Roberts has been ruled out for six months with a knee injury. With their skipper Sam Warburton also ruled out with a shoulder injury, it would mean they'd have to travel over to Dublin without their two best players. The mood in the club is already been dark as they face a mass exodus of their playing staff at the end of the season. Gethin Jenkins, Casey Laulala, Dan Parks, Rhys Thomas, Richie Rees, Ben Blair and John Yapp have all confirmed their departures and more may yet follow them. Their move to Cardiff City's football stadium has been a disaster and they are massively in debt.

Yet for all their woes, it could all conspire to make Cardiff quite a dangerous proposition this weekend. With their league hopes gone, Cardiff can pretty much give it everything tomorrow because they've nothing really left to lose. Most of all they'll be massive under-dogs and some of their Welsh internationals who've won their last three games against Ireland may be slightly offended by that.

Despite their lengthy injury list, Cardiff have still named a strong team with eleven internationals in the starting line-up. Leigh Halfpenny was one of the stars of the Six Nations recently and he'll be relishing a chance to go up against Rob Kearney, his main competitor for the Lions full-back jersey. They've got two big, strong wingers in Alex Cuthbert and Tom James and Casey Laulala and Dafydd Hewitt are powerful, direct runners in midfield. Former Scotland out-half Dan Parks will be playing one of his last games for the club before moving to Connacht in the summer and he'll look to go out with a bang and scrum-half Lloyd Williams is one of the most promising young players in Wales.

They've been hugely boosted in the pack by the return of the hugely experienced trio of Xavier Rush, Martyn Williams and Gethin Jenkins. Jenkins is a world-class prop who will look to take the battle to the Leinster scrum. Fellow Welsh international Scott Andrews is on the tighthead and young Marc Breeze gets the nod at hooker. Bradley Davies returns to the Aviva stadium where he was cited and banned for dumping Donncha Ryan in the Ireland-Wales match. To be fair, it was an act out of character and Davies is a tough and hard-working operator. Young James Down in the second row partners him and New Zealander Michael Paterson joins Rush and Williams in the back row. All in all, it's a pretty decent line-up with plenty of hardy old campaigners plus some exciting young talent.

Leinster have made four changes, all in the pack, to the team that beat Munster last weekend. Cian Healy and Richardt Strauss come into the front row and Leo Cullen comes into the second row and resumes the captaincy. In the backrow, in what must have been a close call, Sean O'Brien starts at number seven ahead of Shane Jennings, who played very well last weekend. Jennings is named on a very strong bench that includes prop Nathan White, who's recovered from the facial injury that kept him out of last week's game. With his form in Europe this season, Devin Toner must also be considered unlucky, but you can't really blame Schmidt for going with the quality of Brad Thorn in the second row.

With Martyn Williams and Rush on the pitch, Cardiff will do everything in their power to slow Leinster down at the breakdown. It was a tactic that worked to some extent in the match in January in which Leinster got off to a fast start but were then dragged into a dog-fight. Leinster still won that game 23-19 though and this time Cardiff won't have a home-town Italian ref on the pitch. Cardiff have enough big names on their team-sheet to ensure that Leinster treat them with respect, but if Leinster turn with the right attitude, then they should ultimately win with something to spare, even if they are forced to scrap for a while.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Cardiff Blues
Teams Robert Kearney
15 Leigh Halfpenny
Isa Nacewa 14 Alex Cuthbert
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Casey Laulala
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Dafydd Hewitt
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Tom James
Jonathan Sexton 10 Dan Parks
Eoin Reddan 9 Lloyd Williams

Cian Healy
1 Gethin Jenkins
Richardt Strauss
2 Marc Breeze
Mike Ross
3 Scott Andrews
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Bradley Davies
Brad Thorn 5 James Down
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Michael Paterson
Sean O'Brien 7 Martyn Williams
Jamie Heaslip 8 Xavier Rush (C)

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Kristian Dacey
Heinke van der Merwe 17 John Yapp
Nathan White
18 Sam Hobbs
Devin Toner
19 Macauley Cook
Shane Jennings
20 Maama Molitika
Isaac Boss
21 Richie Rees
Ian Madigan 22 Ceri Sweeney
Fergus McFadden 23 Gavin Evans

Not Considered
due to Injury
Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
Ciaran Ruddock,
John Cooney,
Eoin O'Malley

Sam Warburton,
Jamie Roberts,
Richard Mustoe,
Taufa'ao Filise,
Andries Pretorius,
Deiniol Jones,
T Rhys Thomas,
Paul Tito
Officials Referee: David Pearson (RFU)
Assistant Referees: Pascal Gauzere (FFR), David Changleng (SRU)
4th Official: Tim Wigglesworth (RFU)
5th Official: Roy Maybank (RFU)
TMO: Geoff Warren (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-04-06