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Leinster Rugby vs Biarritz Olympique
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Saturday, 27th April 2013, 14:30

Leinster made their debut in the Amlin Challenge cup 3 weeks ago with a visit to Adams Park.  The travelling support put lie to the rumour that Leinster fans don't care about this competition with a performance from the terrace reminiscent of days of old.  Jordi Murphy joined the fans and indeed joined in with Molly Malone and I'm sure with the rousing rendition of Happy Birthday that the fans sang for birthday girl OLSC president Aisling O'Connor.  Also reminiscent of days of old were events on the pitch.  Leinster came out on top in a display of 'we'll score more tries than you'.  In total Leinster scored five with D'Arcy, Rob Kearney and Isa all crossing the whitewash.  Mike Ross scored his first ever try as a professional, finishing off a great break from the aforementioned Isa and Ian Madigan's impressive performance and match total of 28 points included a first half try.  Warren Gatland was present in the crowd - was he taking note?  Wasps started well and were still in touch at half-time thanks to a leaky Leinster defence and a brace of tries from Speedy winger Wade.  But the second half saw Leinster step up a gear and, despite two tries from Varndell late on, won out with a final score of 28-48.

Semi-final opponents Biarritz Olympique are the reigning Amlin champions, having beaten Toulon 21-18 in the Friday night curtain raiser to last year's Leinster v Ulster European cup final in Twickenham.  For the second year running they have, like Leinster this year, dropped into the Amlin courtesy of a second place finish in their Heineken cup pool.  The pool was topped by Harlequins, since knocked out of the competition by Munster, with Connacht and Zebre finishing third and fourth respectively.  Like Leinster they won a high scoring quarter final away to an Amlin qualifier from the Aviva premiership, beating Gloucester 31-41 at Kingsholm.

The sides have met before in the knock-out stages of European competition.  They were our quarter final opponents in the Heineken cup of 2003.  Leinster that year were in a similar position as they were before the Wasps game this year - with a potential home semi-final and final ahead.  Victory over Biarritz earned them that semi-final against Perpignan but that was where our European journey ended that year.  Victory in this home semi-final again offers a home final.    

Biarritz have performed poorly on the domestic front this season currently lying 11th in the top 14 with just one round of games to go.  Their final game will be at home to fellow Amlin semi-finalists Stade Francais.  With European qualification by that route out of reach their only means of European rugby next season is to win the Amlin.  Their serious intent in this competition has been proven by their willingness to travel and perform on the road and their quarterfinal victory over Gloucester.

The importance they have placed on the Amlin can be seen from the strong lineup that they've picked. In the front row, Arnaud Heguy, their hooker who scored in the Gloucester match, is partnered by Synaeghel and Ben Broster. In the second row they call on the experienced duo of Erik Lund and Samoan Pelu Taele. In the back row, their captain and talisman Harinordoquy will lead the team from number 8.

At half-back, they call on the experience of Yachvilli alongside young French outhalf Jean-Pascal Barraque. Their centre partnership of Traille and Baby is retained from the Gloucester match. On the wings, Brew comes in to replace Thomas on the left with American speedster Taku Ngwenya retained on the right. Argentinian Marcelo Bosch makes up their first 15.

Overall, it's a strong lineup and after their victory in Gloucester, there can be no doubting that they'll arrive in Dublin looking for a win.

Leinster will field their strongest available side with both Sexton and Madigan in the starting line-up, at 10 and 12 respectively, in the absence of the injured D'Arcy. Isaac Boss partners Sexton in the half-backs with O'Driscoll partnering Madigan in midfield. Nacewa and McFadden are on the wings with Rob Kearney at full back.

In the front-row, Leinster can call on their full Irish international contingent with Healy, Strauss and Ross starting. The ball carrying ability of Healy could be very important in the absence of Sean O'Brien, who is injured. In the second Row, captain Leo Cullen is partnered by Devin Toner. In the back row, Kevin McLaughlin starts on the blind-side with Shane Jennings on the open-side. Jamie Heaslip makes up the first 15 at number 8.

The bench shows a mixture of youth and experience with Jack McGrath at replacement loosehead in the continued absence of van der Merwe.

The other semi-final will be contested by Perpignan and Stade Francais, two teams who have fought their way up through the Amlin pools.  The final will be what some will see as a deserving competitor taking on an interloper.  Regardless, the Amlin final will be a fantastic occasion and let us hope that it's Leinster taking to the field for another fortnight of finals and another shot at a European and Domestic double.

by Yvonne Kelly, © 2013-05-02