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Leinster Rugby vs Exeter Chiefs
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 13th October 2012, 15:40

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights - TG4 21:05

The good news: A much improved performance and a third win over Munster in a row.

The bad news: More bloody injuries!!

By the end of a match, Leinster had a back three of John Cooney, Ian Madigan and Fionn Carr with Noel Reid in the centre alongside Fergus McFadden. Not exactly a line-up to inspire defensive confidence. However, they hung on to close out the win and deny Munster even the consolation of a losing bonus point.

It had all looked so much easier twenty minutes earlier when Leinster scored their third try of the match to take a commanding lead. They had lost flanker Kevin McLaughlin early in the match but that loss was offset by a solid shift from academy prospect Jordi Murphy. However then they had the triple whammy of losing Isa Nacewa, Brian O'Driscoll and Andrew Conway one after another and this knocked them off their rhythm.

But they got through it and the win leaves them in fourth place in the league, four points behind leaders Ulster (who have a game in hand). All in all, considering the amount of injuries and the standard of performances in general, it's not the worst position to be in. Joe Schmidt can park his league concerns for now though and focus on making history in becoming the first club to win the Heineken Cup three times in a row.

When the final was announced for Dublin this season, people automatically pencilled Leinster in as a team that had to be there. However the harsh reality of the Heineken Cup means things are never as easy as they seem. Once again, being the number-one ranked team means little in terms of getting a good draw and it's another tricky group. The double-header meetings with our old adversaries Clermont will be sure to have a massive bearing on who'll win out.

However it would be ill-advised to take the other two teams too lightly. The Scarlets are second in the league and thumped (an admittedly under-strength) Leinster in the season opener. And Exeter are a cub whose name doesn't ring out like a Leicester or Northampton, but they are a team who have consistently punched above their weight.

Exeter have actually been the Cinderella story of English rugby and serve as a great counter-argument to the self-interested clubs which would scrap relegation in England's top division. They were in a play-off with Bristol for promotion two years ago. Bristol had a more high-profile squad but Exeter beat them comfortably. However, even after promotion, their coach Rob Baxter refused to compromise the club financially by signing several new players. With only a couple of new signings he gambled that the players that got them promoted would be the players to keep them up. Most pundits tipped them to be relegated immediately.

However they confounded everyone's expectations by beating Gloucester in their first match and went on to comfortably avoid relegation finishing in a creditable eighth place. Even then they were speculating that this was just a fluke and that the harsh reality of Premiership rugby would catch up with them in their sophomore season. Instead Exeter actually improved, finishing in fifth place, just six points out of the play-off spots and qualifying for the Heineken Cup for the first time. They also had a good run in the Amlin Cup, losing narrowly to Stade Francais in the quarter-finals.

When you actually look through their squad though, these results are not that surprising as there's quite a few decent players. There's a useful pair of Argentineans in fly-half Ignacio Mieres and winger Gonzalo Camacho. There's some handy Welsh players in international prop Craig Mitchell, lock Damien Welch and former Dragon Phil Dollman. They've a powerful pair of centres in Fijian international Sireli Naqelevuki and Jason Shoemark, a tough Kiwi. Tom Johnson, an old-school, hard-as-nails blindside, was capped three times by England on their summer tour of South Africa. Perhaps their most high profile addition to date is Dean Mumm, the 33 times capped Wallaby, signed from the Waratahs in the summer.

There's a considerable Irish influence in the club as well. Ian Whitten arrived from Ulster in the summer and has impressed immediately, starting every game so far, alternating between the wing and centre. Gareth Steenson's goal-kicking was a big part of getting the club promoted and though he lost his starting spot at out-half to Mieres for most of last season, he's itching to reclaim it now he's over his knee problems. And then there's Tom Hayes, who captains the team from the second row. A former Munster player, and brother of "The Bull" himself John, he epitomises the no-nonsense spirit of the team and is a massive influence on the club.

Exeter's results so far this season have been a little up and down. They've won all their home games against Sale, Harlequins and Saracens but lost all their games on the road to Leicester, Northampton and London Welsh. That last result would probably have hurt them the most, but they should know better than anyone not to underestimate newly promoted teams. Still they're in sixth place in the table and the whole town has been buzzing with the prospect of their first ever Heineken Cup match. Devon is the real heartland of English rugby and their fans are far more boisterous than your normal rugby fans from England. They'll certainly make themselves heard and should ensure a cracking atmosphere in the RDS.

Rob Baxter has named an Exeter team that shows only two changes from the team that defeated Harlequins last week. It's a measure of Hayes's influence that he's recalled in place of Mumm, who has to be content with a place on the bench. The only other change is the return of former Bath player James Scaysbrook at openside in place of the injured Ben White. He makes up a backrow with Johnson and Richard Baxter, the brother of the coach and one of their most long-serving players. Hayes partners James Hanks in the second row and Brett Sturgess, Simon Alcott and Carl Rimmer are the front row.

Steenson's performance last week gets him the nod again this week ahead of Mieres and he partners Haydn Thomas at half-back. Whitten is again named on the right wing with Matt Jess on the left and Phil Dollman and Jason Shoemark are an experienced pair in midfield. Former Bristol player Luke Arscott is a real threat at full back and they have game-changers on the bench in the likes of Mumm, Mieres, Naqelevuki and prop Chris Budgen. Overall it's a strong, well-organised outfit that won't be afraid to move the ball around and the three Irish starters in particular will all be looking to have big games.

For Leinster, once again, it's all about who's fit and the news is mixed this week with some players back and some still out. Despite all the drama of last week, Nacewa, O'Driscoll, Conway and McLaughlin are all passed fit to start. In fact the only two changes to last week's team are in the front five where Cian Healy and Leo Cullen return from injury to start in place of Heinke van der Merwe and Devin Toner. This means Conway will make his first appearance in the Heineken Cup and he will look to continue his excellent form of last week, before his early departure. Isaac Boss has also recovered sufficiently from injury to take his place on a bench that unusually has six forwards and only two backs. The game has come a week too soon for Rob Kearney and Gordon D'Arcy, but all things considered it's as strong a team as Leinster fans could expect in the circumstances.

Exeter arrive as massive under-dogs and they will no doubt relish the freedom to have a go that provides. Joe Schmidt is certainly anticipating a massive physical challenge from them as the naming of Browne in the boiler room indicates. However, there's no doubt that the Heineken Cup is a massive step-up and Exeter may struggle with the pace as the game progresses. They will no doubt have a go but Leinster should ultimately have enough class in the team to win with something to spare.

P.S. A very young Leinster 'A' side will take on Leeds in their first British and Irish Cup match in Donnybrook at 7 o'clock. Hopefully, a sizable group of Leinster supporters will interrupt their post-match revelry to go up the road and shout the young lads on. It's free admission for season-ticket holders.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Exeter Chiefs
Teams Ian Madigan
15 Luke Arscott
Andrew Conway 14 Ian Whitten
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Phil Dollman
Fergus McFadden
12 Jason Shoemark
Isa Nacewa 11 Matt Jess
Jonathan Sexton
10 Gareth Steenson
Eoin Reddan
9 Haydn Thomas

Cian Healy
1 Brett Sturgess
Richardt Strauss
2 Simon Alcott
Mike Ross
3 Carl Rimmer
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Tom Hayes (C)
Damian Browne 5 James Hanks
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Tom Johnson
Shane Jennings 7 James Scaysbrook
Jamie Heaslip
8 Richard Baxter

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Chris Whitehead
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Chris Budgen
Jamie Hagan
18 Ben Moon
Devin Toner 19 Ally Muldowney
Leo Auva'a
20 Dean Mumm
Jordi Murphy 21 Will Chudley
Isaac Boss
22 Ignacio Mieres
Fionn Carr
23 Sireli Naqelevuki
Not considered
due to injury
Luke Fitzgerald,
Sean O'Brien,
Eoin O'Malley,
Rhys Ruddock,
David Kearney,
Mark Flanagan,
Conor Gilsenan,
Dominic Ryan,
Aaron Dundon,
David Doyle,
Martin Moore,
Luke McGrath,
Rob Kearney,
Gordon D'Arcy,
Quinn Roux
  Ben White,
Craig Mitchell
Match Officials Referee: Pascal Gauzere (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Jean-Luc Rebollal, Cyril Lafon (both FFR),
4th Official: Brian MacNeice (IRFU),
5th Oficial: Brian Montayne (IRFU),
TMO: Daniel Irazoqui (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-10-12