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Racing Metro 92 vs Leinster Rugby
Stade Olympique Yves-du-Manoir,
Friday, 21st January 2011, 21:00 (20:00 Irish Time)

Television: Live - Sky Sports 1, Highlights 22:55 RTE2

When Leinster's pool was announced last summer there was a general consensus that qualification might be beyond them. Clermont were the French Champions, Saracens were the English Premiership runners up and Racing Metro 92 were another big French club with loads of money. Surely with teams of this quality, it would just be a bridge too far?

Well, Leinster have qualified with a game to spare, and played some dazzling rugby in doing so. It's a fantastic achievement for new coach Joe Schmidt and his team, however he'll be the first one emphasising that their job is not yet done. For, while last week's win guaranteed qualification, they'll still need to win tomorrow evening to ensure that they have a crucial home quarter-final.

Four years ago, Leinster were in the same position of having qualified with a game to go and they just had to beat Gloucester away to secure the home quarter-final. However Leinster didn't turn up on the night, played poorly and lost. This meant they had to travel to Adams Park to play Wasps in the quarter-final where they were soundly beaten. It's not just an on-field issue either as the financial ramifications of losing out on a sell-out quarter-final (most likely in the Aviva Stadium) would also be massive. So Leinster CEO Mick Dawson will be making sure the message is clear in the players' minds; they need to go out and win!

For Racing, it's been a disappointing first campaign in the Heinken Cup. After losing at the RDS to Leinster, they beat Clermont in the second round (how Vern Cotter must regret sending out a weakened team that day!). They then beat Saracens away and looked to have put themselves into a position to really challenge Leinster at the top of the table. However, they blew this chance when Saracens beat them at home in the return fixture on a particularly snowy night in Paris. Last weekend, they sent out a second string line-up to face Clermont and though they performed quite admirably, they lost 28-17. This ended any interest they have in Europe this season as it also ruled them out of qualifying for the Amlin Challenge Cup.

For tomorrow night's match, they've stuck with pretty much the same line-up. They've rotated three of the front five as hooker Gregory Arganese, prop Scott Zimmerman and lock Santiago Dellape come in for Carlo Festuccia, Benjamin Sa and Karim Ghezal respectively. It's very much a second string pack although they do have some heavy hitters like Andrea Lo Cicero, Lionel Nallet and Jacques Cronje on the bench. The backline has a more dangerous look about it though.

Argentinean international Juan Martin Hernandez plays at ten and though he's only recently back from injury, he's still one of the best players in the world on his day. He's partnered by Nicolas Durand, a very experienced and capable scrum-half who also captains the team. Experienced Italian international Andrea Masi partners eighteen-year-old Fijian Virimi Vakatawa in midfield. Vakatawa only made his Racing debut in last week's match so it's one hell of an ask for him to go up against Brian O'Driscoll. In the back three French International Benjamin Fall is on the right wing and Julien Saubade on the left. Fall is lighting quick so Luke Fitzgerald will have his work cut out defensively this week. Former England international Dan Scarbrough is at full-back.

It's certainly not the top-line Racing outfit that Leinster faced in the RDS last October but a French side at home can never be under-estimated. The common thinking is that French sides give up in the Heineken Cup once they can't qualify but this isn't always the case. Two years ago, Castres were out of contention after three games but they still had enough pride to beat both Leinster and Wasps at home. The memory of that alone will hopefully be enough for Leinster to keep any thoughts of complacency at bay.

For Leinster, last week's win against Saracens was another superb performance. Needing a win and four tries to guarantee their qualification, they actually scored six and had the game won with twenty minutes to spare. Once again it was Sean O'Brien leading the way with another sensational performance. His personal stats from the game were almost ridiculous, with 20 carries for 120 yards plus 12 tackles made and none missed. It should come as a great relief that he signed a new three-year contract with Leinster during the week as with stats like that most NFL teams would be interested.

It wasn't just 'The Seanie show' though as so many players had great matches like Jonny Sexton, Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen and Richardt Strauss, whose handling and passing would shame many a three-quarter. The fact that five of Leinster's six tries were scored by home-grown players aged 24 or younger also puts a smile on the face. The babies are growing up and taking over!!

The only downside of the match was a poor personal performance by Luke Fitzgerald, which contributed to Saracens getting back into the game in the first half. Luke is still clearly finding his feet after his most recent injury but he remains a quality player and hopefully he'll get back to his best tomorrow evening.

Fitzgerald is retained on the left wing in a selection that shows three changes from the team that took the field last week. After having to pull out late last weekend, Gordon D'Arcy is back at inside centre, which means Fergus McFadden is demoted to the bench. It's unfortunate for McFadden who's been in superb form and who scored the try of the match last weekend. However Schmidt has probably taken the decision that it's more important in the long term for Fitzgerald to get his confidence back and besides, McFadden is probably due a rest after starting the last eleven games in a row. The other change to the backline sees Isaac Boss rotate with Eoin Reddan again at scrum-half.

There is only one change to the pack as Rhys Ruddock comes in at blindside flanker for Dominic Ryan. Again Ryan is unlucky to drop to the bench as he scored two tries last week, but Ruddock has been on good form this season and he deserves to make his European debut. With Jamie Heaslip still not fully recovered from his ankle injury, Sean O'Brien continues at number eight alongside Shane Jennings who also signed a three-year contract this week. Leinster have a strong bench with Reddan, Ryan and McFadden plus Devin Toner, Heinke van der Merwe and Eoin O'Malley, who came on to score his first Heineken Cup try last week. O'Malley is a doubt with illness though and so is bracketed with Ian Madigan.

For Leinster tomorrow night, the first half will be crucial. The longer Racing stay in the match, the more their pride will keep them going and they do have a strong bench to call on if a victory is on the cards with half an hour to go. However, if Leinster can come out of the blocks quickly and establish a decent lead, then the Racing players could well lose interest, especially as they have a crucial match against Clermont in the Top 14 next Thursday.

Once again, it will be all be about Leinster having the correct mindset from the start, but if they do they should have more than enough to get the win to finish off the pool matches in style with a home quarter-final to look forward to.

Team Lineups

Racing Metro 92
Leinster Rugby
Teams Dan Scarbrough
15 Isa Nacewa
Benjamin Fall
14 Shane Horgan
Varimi Vakatawa
13 Brian O'Driscoll
Andrea Masi
12 Gordon D'Arcy
Julien Saudabe
11 Luke Fitzgerald
Juan Martin Hernandez
10 Jonathan Sexton
Nicolas Durand (C)
9 Isaac Boss

Julien Brugnaut
1 Cian Healy
Gregory Arganese
2 Richardt Strauss
Scott Zimmerman
3 Mike Ross
Santiago Dellape
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Francois van der Merwe
5 Nathan Hines
Remi Vaquin
6 Rhys Ruddock
Bernard Le Roux
7 Shane Jennings
Alvaro Galindo
8 Sean O'Brien

Replacements Benjamin Noirot
16 Jason Harris-Wright
Andrea Lo Cicero
17 Heinke van der Merwe
Benjamin Sa
18 Clint Newland
Lionel Nallet
19 Devin Toner
Mathieu Loree
20 Dominic Ryan
Francois Steyn
21 Eoin Reddan
Jacques Cronje
22 Eoin O'Malley
Antoine Battut
23 Fergus McFadden
Not Considered
due to Injury

Stan Wright,
Rob Kearney,
Paul Ryan,
Jamie Heaslip
Match Officials Referee: Greg Garner (RFU),
Assistant Referees: Chris White, Stuart Terheege (both RFU),
TMO: Graham Hughes (RFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-01-24