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Leinster Rugby vs Scarlets
RDS Showground,
Saturday, 12th January 2013, 18:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 1, Highlights TG4 21.15

Well, here we go!

Well it comes right down to it, Leinster have two games to save their season.

Of course the Pro12 will remain a target as always but being dumped into the Amlin is just too depressing to even think about. Leinster haven't been out of the Heineken Cup at the end of the January since the 2007/08 season and it hurt then and would hurt even more now. Leinster would put a brave face on things and carry on but it would cast a massive cloud over the season. So Leinster have to find some way to rescue their campaign and avoid becoming the first champions to not qualify from their pool the following season since Wasps in 2004/05.

However, they've left themselves a hell of a lot to do to qualify. With the two defeats to Clermont still stinging their pride, the failure to take a bonus point in either of the two wins against Exeter and Scarlets has come back to haunt them. So they're on ten points and realistically their only way of going through is qualifying as one of the two best second-placed teams. There are currently several other teams better placed for those two slots in terms of points earned and also in terms of try-counts (currently only try-less Edinburgh have scored less tries than Leinster). However a lot can change in the next two weeks as the pressure comes on and all Leinster can do at this stage is reach the target they set themselves.

Their target is to get to 20 points which will mean getting two bonus-point wins over consecutive weekends. Even that total may end up not being enough anyway, but Leinster can't afford to even think of that possibility. They can only focus on achieving their target and seeing where the chips fall. Of course winning away to Exeter next week will be tough enough considering how good they are at home, let alone scoring four tries as well. But that's next week's game and if Leinster let their minds drift to that, they could trip over their feet in this week's game against the Scarlets.

Last week's game against Edinburgh brought some much needed "feel-good-factor" back. The return of Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald clearly boosted the squad and they responded with a bonus-point win away to Edinburgh. True it wasn't a perfect performance and there was still a good few mistakes, but it was great to see Leinster attacking with real urgency. As well as the three returnees, it was also great to see Sean O'Brien play so well. After playing through a hip injury last season, he's now fully fit again and he looked in great nick.

Last week's game was interesting as it was clearly a dummy run for the next two weeks as Leinster attacked relentlessly from the start, turning down early opportunities to kick at goal to go for scrums or lineouts instead. They'll be looking to do the same this week but it can be a high-risk strategy. Sometimes when a team is desperately seeking a bonus point win, they can forget they have to win the game first. It's fine if a team gets off to a good start with a couple of early tries but if a few balls go to ground the attacking team can get uptight. For Leinster the mantra has to be an "eighty-minute-performance" of high intensity, because even if they do get a bonus point early they will still need to keep looking for five-pointers to get the try-count up.

To that end, Leinster are fortuitous to be meeting a Scarlets team very low on confidence. After some decent early season form, including destroying Leinster in the opening league game, the Scarlets have fallen back to earth with a bump. They've lost five of their last six games in all competitions, their only victory being a manky 9-6 win over fellow strugglers Cardiff. In their last two matches they've been given hidings by both the Ospreys and Ulster and have fallen from second in the league table to fifth.

It must be tough on a coach as proud and competitive as Simon Easterby to witness this, but we've been here before with the Scarlets. Their back-play can be dazzling at times when the likes of George North, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Priestland get going. But despite the summer recruitment of several Southern Hemisphere tight forwards, the soft centre in the front five which has been there for years remains. There was a further blow to their morale during the week when Morgan Stoddart announced his retirement due to injury. Though he seemed to have been around for ages, the Welsh international is still only 28. A creative runner and a fine footballer from either full-back or the wing, he'll be a big loss to them.

To Easterby's relief his injury list has eased somewhat and he's able to name quite a strong team with eight changes from the team that started last week. Liam Williams is back at full back with Andy Fenby coming in on the right wing in place of the injured George North. Scott Williams comes in at inside centre for Jonathan Davies who's carrying a knock and is only named on the bench. He'll partner Gareth Maule, who scored an excellent try in the first pool match, and former Osprey Kristian Philips completes the three quarter line. With Rhys Priestland a long term absentee, Aled Thomas continues at ten with Tavis Knoyle at scrum-half.

In the front row their small but mobile international hooker Ken Owens is back from injury and Phil John and Jacobie Adriaanse prop down either side of him. George Earle and Richard Kelly are the second row combination and skipper Rob McCusker moves to blindside to let Kieran Murphy start at eight in the backrow. The feisty Josh Turnbull is at open-side and he'll be up to his usual mischief trying to disrupt as much Leinster ball as possible.

For Leinster the big news is that Brian O'Driscoll is named on the bench for the first time ever in a Heineken Cup match. Despite playing the full eighty minutes last weekend he never quite looked himself and his return from long-term injury is being "managed" carefully with next week's trip to Exeter in mind. He's replaced at outside centre by Fergus McFadden, who's been Leinster's form back this season albeit mostly from the wing. There are two further changes to the backline with the fit again Isa Nacewa back on the right wing in place of Fionn Carr and Isaac Boss getting the nod ahead of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half. It's unusual for Boss to get selected for a home Heineken Cup match ahead of Reddan but in truth it's a form call.

In the pack Richardt Strauss and Damian Browne still aren't fit for selection so the front five is unchanged from last week. The only change to the pack sees the return of Shane Jennings to the line-up in place of the injured Kevin McLaughlin, with Sean O'Brien moving over to blindside flank.

The Scarlets have nothing to play for other than pride having lost their four pool matches so far. In truth they competed gamely in the first half against Ulster last week, with a smart but limited gameplan. However once Ulster got motoring in the second half they blew the Scarlets away scoring 47 points and five tries. Leinster would be happy enough with that total if offered now but you'd feel if they really got into their stride they could get even more.

That being said, Leinster have to be careful not to totally dismiss the Scarlets either. They're on the ropes but sometimes a team with nothing to play for can play with freedom and have a go. They know the Scarlets can be an awkward bunch at the breakdown and Jonno Gibbes will have been drilling the pack all week to be utterly ruthless in clearing out rucks to set up that precious quick ball. The set-piece needs to be on top of its game too, especially at the lineout where Cronin and Toner need to have big games. There's nothing as bad as a malfunctioning lineout to blunt a team's momentum and it needs to be sharp and accurate right from the start.

This Leinster team are annoyed at themselves to be in the position they're in and they want to take their frustration out on someone. The Scarlets are the team in the firing line this week and it could be a long and brutal evening for them.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Robert Kearney
15 Liam Williams
Isa Nacewa
14 Andy Fenby
Fergus McFadden 13 Gareth Maule
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Scott Williams
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Kristian Philips
Jonathan Sexton 10 Aled Thomas
Isaac Boss 9 Tavis Knoyle

Cian Healy 1 Phil John
Sean Cronin 2 Ken Owens
Mike Ross 3 Jacobie Adriaanse
Leo Cullen (C)
4 George Earle
Devin Toner 5 Richard Kelly
Sean O'Brien 6 Rob McCusker (C)
Shane Jennings
7 Josh Turnbull
Jamie Heaslip 8 Kieran Murphy

Replacements Aaron Dundon 16 Matthew Rees
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Rhodri Jones
Michael Bent 18 Samson Lee
Tom Denton 19 Johan Snyman
Rhys Ruddock 20 Sione Timani
Eoin Reddan 21 Gareth Davies
Ian Madigan 22 Jonathan Davies
Brian O'Driscoll 23 Adam Warren
Not considered
due to injury
Eoin O'Malley,
David Doyle,
Darren Hudson,
Colm O'Shea,
Damian Browne,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Richardt Strauss
  Aaron Shingler,
Jordan Williams,
Rhys Priestland,
Johnathan Edwards,
George North
Match Officials Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Sebastien Cloute, Alexandre Ruiz (both FFR),
4th Official: Barry O'Keefe (IRFU),
5th Official: Brian Montayne (IRFU),
TMO: Jean Claude Levrier (FFR)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-01-11