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Harlequins FC vs Leinster Rugby
European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 2 Round 3
The Stoop, London,
Sunday, 7th December 2014, 15:15

Television: Live - Sky Sports 2

Back to the scene of the crime!

Leinster return to the Stoop for the first since the notorious "Bloodgate" incident in the Heineken Cup quarter-final of 2009. That incident has been talked about to death but it's a shame that the game is mainly remembered for that incident as it was a cracking match. There wasn't a whole lot of scoring of course, two Felipe Contepomi penalties versus one Mike Brown try in a 6-5 win.

Yet the intensity of the Leinster defence that day, backed up by a frenzied support from the Leinster fans grouped together behind the goals, lives long in the memory. Another thing that was memorable was how gracious and supportive the Harlequins fans were after the match. While most of the Leinster fans present were fairly pessimistic about their chances in the semi-final against the seemingly invincible Munster, it was the Quins fans who were insistent that Leinster would win and how right they were.

In the aftermath of "Bloodgate", the club suffered but they bounced back pretty quickly when former Leinster player Conor O'Shea was brought in as director of rugby in place of the disgraced Dean Richards. Within two seasons, they won the Premiership. They've struggled to maintain that form though, especially with a relatively small budget compared to the likes of Saracens and Bath. They've lost at the semi-final stage of the Premiership in the past two seasons and haven't made it any further in Europe than a losing home quarter-final to Munster two seasons ago.

Their form in the Premiership has been fairly poor this season, losing five out of nine games to lie ninth. However their form in Europe has been good, winning their first two matches. With Wasps and Castres both without a win, they're now Leinster's only realistic challenger in the pool. Some of their key men in Mike Brown, skipper Joe Marler, Malcolm Yarde and Chris Robshaw return from international duty to take their place in a team that shows six changes from the side well beaten by Bath last week. Robshaw will make his 200th appearance for the club, showing what a loyal and durable servant he's been to them.

Danny Care, whose form has dropped so badly he lost his place in the England squad over the Autumn, is paired with Nick Evans at half-back. Evans is another player whose form is not what it once was. The other two changes to the side see George Lowe start at inside centre and Will Collier come in at tighthead prop. It's a decent side and though their form is poor at the moment, when they get motoring they're a dangerous side.

It would be nice to approach the game with positivity but it's a tough ask considering Leinster's dire form at the moment. Last week there was one of the strangest atmospheres at the RDS ever. The crowd has been bored before, quite a few times over the last 18 months in fact, but this time there was a clear contempt in the air for Leinster's tactics under Matt O'Connor's gameplan. O'Connor is quickly becoming the Trappatoni of rugby, yes he'll get you a few results but no one is going to have any fun, not the players and certainly not the supporters.

Publicly at least, the players are still backing their coach, well they don't have much choice really. But there were signs in their body language that they're getting frustrated with O'Connor's gameplan which basically involves hoofing the ball in the air or smashing it up the middle. The problem doesn't seem to be that Leinster's backs can't play, the problem is that they're being instructed not to take any risks or back their own ability on the ball. O'Connor came out with the usual waffle after the match about "being more accurate" and "getting quicker ball" but quick ball is wasted on a team that insist on route one rugby even when there is space out wide. Is it any wonder Leinster's injury rate over the last 18 months has been off the chart, especially concussions, when O'Connor insists on attacking only through areas when you're most likely to get smashed in the tackle?

In a sign that he's feeling the pressure, O'Connor has tried to justify his brand of garbage rugby by arguing that when Leinster played attractive rugby in the past, they were serial losers who were mocked by the press. This of course completely ignores the truth that when Leinster won the Heineken Cup in 2011 and 2012, they played rugby that was admired all over Europe. They still had a tough edge up front but they still looked to play when the space was there and they scored a lot of tries. Of course, they had a better coach back then.

Once again, the injury jinx has struck with Dominic Ryan, Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden being added to the list. O'Connor will hope his returning players from the Ireland squad can help improve things. Six of them return to the side, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross to the front row, Devin Toner to the second row and Rhys Ruddock and skipper Jamie Heaslip to the back row. The fit-again Mike McCarthy returns to the second row and Jordi Murphy rounds out the pack. In the backs there are three changes as Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney are all named to start. At this stage we shouldn't be too surprised if a different team actually takes to the field though.

At this stage last season Leinster actually produced their one truly great performance under O'Connor's regime. It was away to Northampton and they demolished them scoring six tries to one and played some fantastic rugby. That performance almost seems like a beautiful dream now and these days O'Connor says that kind of stuff is fairy-tale rugby that won't win anything.

So Leinster may win or lose this Sunday but expect the usual hard grind and few, if any, tries.

Team Lineups

Harlequins FC

Leinster Rugby
Teams Mike Brown 15 Rob Kearney
Marland Yarde 14 Darragh Fanning
Matt Hopper 13 Gordon D'Arcy
George Lowe 12 Ian Madigan
Aseli Tikoirotuma 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Nick Evans 10 Jimmy Gopperth
Danny Care 9 Eoin Reddan

Joe Marler (C)
1 Jack McGrath
Dave Ward 2 Sean Cronin
Will Collier 3 Mike Ross
Charlie Matthews 4 Devin Toner
George Robson 5 Mike McCarthy
Luke Wallace6 Rhys Ruddock
Chris Robshaw 7 Jordi Murphy
Nick Easter8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Joe Gray 16 Bryan Byrne
Mark Lambert 17 Michael Bent
Kyle Sinckler 18 Tadhg Furlong
Sam Twomey 19 Kane Douglas
Jack Clifford 20
Jack Conan
Karl Dickson 21 Isaac Boss
Tim Swiel 22 Noel Reid
Tom Casson 23 Zane Kirchner

Not Considered
due to Injury

Sean O'Brien,
Cian Healy,
Martin Moore,
Edward Byrne,
Ben Te'o,
Shane Jennings,
Richardt Strauss,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Fergus McFadden,
Dominic Ryan,
Dave Kearney
Officials Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Maxime Chalon, Patrick Pechambert (FFR),
TMO: Philippe Bonhoure (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-12-05