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Leinster Rugby vs Northampton Saints
Heineken Cup, Pool 1, Match 4
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 14th December 2013, 18:00

Television: Live � Sky Sports 2, Highlights TG4 21:05

What a performance!

What a win!

What a crazy sing-song on the terrace afterwards!

If this was to be Leinster's last competitive trip to England, and let's hope it's not, they certainly went out in style. Northampton lived up to its reputation as a proper rugby town and the few thousand Leinster fans that were lucky enough to be there last week certainly had a weekend to remember. The Northampton fans were welcoming before the match and extremely gracious in defeat afterwards, especially in the circumstances. Losing at home is one thing but taking a hiding like that is soul-destroying so to see so many of them come over to applaud and congratulate the delirious travelling fans was a mark of the club's true character.

But where did that Leinster performance come from?

Most of Leinster's travelling fans were confident of attaining a losing bonus point or perhaps snatching a hard-fought win, but not even Nostradamus foresaw Leinster having the win with a four-try bonus point sewn up by half-time. Northampton had been talking about how they would take Leinster on physically up front and perhaps they had tagged some of the lesser known members of the pack like Rhys Ruddock, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and Mike McCarthy as "soft". However where they expected softness, they instead found granite and all four were magnificent, especially the second row pairing Toner and McCarthy who seemed to be the first out of the line every time looking to make the tackle. Ruddock thoroughly justified his selection over Kevin McLaughlin with his finest game in a blue jersey and the biggest compliment to McGrath is that Cian Healy, a late withdrawal, simply wasn't missed.

Credit must go to coach Matt O'Connor because all his big selection calls paid off in spades, not least his half-back pairing. Eoin Reddan was superb, his passing and speed of service being as sharp as ever but he also brought a real physicality to the game which we haven't always seen in his time with Leinster. In his Wasps days he was more noted for his running threat than his passing as Leinster found to their cost in the 2007 quarter-final defeat when he ran in two tries. Since coming to Leinster though he settled in as the passer with Isaac Boss being seen more as the physical running type of scrum-half. Reddan only scored one try in his first 87 Leinster appearances, but now he's got two tries in his last two games.

His half-back partner Ian Madigan also fully justified his selection. Although his did miss one place-kick that he'd normally get in his sleep, it was the only stain on what was a hugely accomplished and mature display. With him being such a devastating running threat (17 tries in two seasons) he has in the past perhaps taken on the opposition defence himself too often. However on Saturday his first instinct was to pass and helped enormously by the platform his pack and Reddan gave him, his service was needle sharp. The intelligence and accuracy of his passing played a huge part in helping Rob Kearney, Brian O'Driscoll, Luke Fitzgerald and the rest rip the Saints defence to shreds.

The only caveat to Leinster's performance was it's timing in that it came in the first week of the double-header. History has shown that, unless there's a clear gulf in class, it's rare you hammer a team twice in two weeks in these fixtures. Leinster have learned their own bitter lessons in the past in this regard. Back in 2005 Leinster hammered Bourgoin 53-7 in the RDS, only to lose 30-28 in France a week later. Two years later, they beat Edinburgh comfortably 28-14 in Dublin only to lose 29-10 in the Scottish capital a week later, a defeat that effectively knocked them out of the competition that year. A year after that, they beat Castres 30-3 at home only to lose in the bitter cold the following week by 18-15.

Part of the reason for these strange turnarounds is familiarity. In the normal scheme of things in rugby if you lose to a team, you store up information to use against them the next time you play as well as some natural antipathy. However you mightn't play them again for months so that information mightn't be as useful and the grudges can fade by the next time you actually meet. But when you're playing that team the following week, you can put all the information and all that antipathy to immediate use. Certainly Northampton will be going all out to give a better account of themselves this week. Last season they responded to a 25-6 home defeat against Ulster by going to Ravenhill and winning 10-9 on a wet, windy day. With similar weather forecast for tomorrow evening, Northampton will be busting a gut to do it again.

Leinster are a bit more experienced than Ulster were last season though and their focus seemed to switch to this game right from the final whistle last week. In the post-match interview last week, when Luke Fitzgerald was asked to focus on his three tries he instead focused on the two that got away, one from a forward pass from Sean Cronin to him, the other from a slightly behind-the-man pass from Luke that led to Reddan failing to control the ball with the line at his mercy. With all the plaudits ringing in their ears, this team will instead focus on the mistakes they made, the 4 lost lineouts, the 2 lost scrums, the 15 tackles missed and the 10-5 penalty count that went them. As good as they were there was still plenty of room for improvement.

Not surprisingly Leinster have named an unchanged match-day squad from the one that started the match last week. Northampton have made three changes to their team, all in the pack. Australian international tighthead prop Salesi Ma'afu, who was a late withdrawal last week, is fit to come back in for Tom Mercey. It's a bit of a case of musical jerseys in the back five as Christian Day and Calum Clark come in. Day will partner Courtney Lawes in the second row which means Samu Manoa moves to number eight and Clark's selection at blindside means Tom Wood moves to the open-side.

The Northampton backline is somewhat surprisingly unchanged, or at least that's how it's been announced. Whether Ken Pisi will actually be retained at full back after his nightmarish performance there last week remains to be seen, but he's been named there. There is at least some good news for Saints with Samoan scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'i fit enough to be named on the bench. He could have a big impact if the game is still tight going into the last half hour.

That's certainly what the Saints will be aiming for, making the game a forward dogfight in the rain like in Ravenhill last year. The changes made to their pack make it look a more balanced unit and it's hard to see Saints being quite as bad as they were last week. That being said, Leinster know exactly how they need to approach the game and after losing their unbeaten run in the Aviva this time last year against Clermont, they'll be determined to give the big Christmas crowd something to shout about right from the start. Expect Northampton to play better, but Leinster should still have too much for them again this week.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Northampton Saints
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Ken Pisi
Dave Kearney
14 Jamie Elliott
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Dom Waldouck
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Luther Burrell
Luke Fitzgerald
11 George North
Ian Madigan
10 Stephen Myler
Eoin Reddan
9 Lee Dickson

Jack McGrath
1 Alex Waller
Sean Cronin
2 Dylan Hartley (C)
Mike Ross
3 Salesi Ma'afu
Devin Toner
4 Christian Day
Mike McCarthy
5 Courtney Lawes
Rhys Ruddock
6 Calum Clark
Sean O'Brien
7 Tom Wood
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 Samu Manoa

Replacements Aaron Dundon
16 Mike Haywood
Michael Bent
17 Ethan Waller
Martin Moore
18 Tom Mercey
Leo Cullen
19 Sam Dickinson
Shane Jennings
20
Phil Dowson
Isaac Boss
21 Kahn Fotuali'i
Jimmy Gopperth
22 Glenn Dickson
Zane Kirchner
23 Tom Collins

Not Considered
due to Injury
Edward Byrne,
Conor Gilsenan,
Dan Leavy,
Andrew Goodman,
Richardt Strauss,
Fergus McFadden,
Cian Healy,
Isaac Boss

Ben Foden,
Alex Corbisiero,
James Wilson
Officials Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Sebastien Cloute, Thomas Charabas (both FFR),
4th Official: Paul Haycock (IRFU),
5th Official: Kevin Beggs (IRFU),
TMO: Eric Gauzins (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-12-13

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