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Exeter Chiefs vs Leinster Rugby
Sandy Park, Exeter,
Saturday, 19th January 2013, 18:00

Television: Live Sky Sports 3, Highlights TG4 21:15

Leinster got the five points they were after last week against the Scarlets. However there was still a sense of frustration after the match as Leinster felt they could have scored more than the five tries they got. They had the bonus point secured after 43 minutes and though the Scarlets were game, you still felt Leinster could have kicked on and really boosted the lowly try-count. However, their intensity visibly dropped after that and they only had Ian Madigan's late try to add to their total.

The players and coaches bemoaned the scores that got away, but in truth perhaps it was understandable enough. In their heads they were half-way through a two-legged tie to get to 20 points. Once they had the 15 in the bag, their thoughts naturally turned to the second leg which is going to be even tougher. Because winning in Exeter is a tough task and getting five points from there is even tougher again.

Exeter have only conceded an attacking bonus point once in 37 Premiership and European matches in Sandy Park since winning promotion two and a half seasons ago. That was when Clermont blitzed them earlier in the pool stages, scoring six tries in a 46-12 win. That score didn't reflect the game at all though as Exeter were well in the match and actually led 12-10 at half-time. However in the second half Clermont upped their intensity and were brutally efficient in taking their chances. Last week Clermont repeated the feat of scoring 46 points and 6 tries in the away match to extinguish any hopes Exeter had of making the Amlin Cup.

However Leinster know Exeter will still be approaching this match going all out for a win. Granted they shipped two hidings against Clermont, but they came against the form team in Europe at the moment. In their three other matches they beat the Scarlets home and away and pushed Leinster to the brink in the RDS, a touch unfortunate to lose 9-6. For a team that's only in its third season of top-flight professional rugby, that's already a very respectable debut Heineken Cup campaign. However, they would love nothing more than to finish it off by eliminating the current European champions.

However, for all Exeter being seen as almost impregnable at home, they've actually failed to win their last two league games there. They drew 12-all with strugglers Bath, before losing 30-19 to Northampton. In the Premiership they're in seventh place, just four points behind sixth place Gloucester. A top six finish would qualify them for the Heineken Cup again next season and now they've had a taste of life at the big table, they'll be desperate to return next season. Their squad is relatively small, by European standards, and the pressure of fighting on two fronts may be beginning to take its toll. So as much as they'll undoubtedly play with pride from the start, if the game isn't going their way with twenty minutes to go, their players wouldn't be blamed for focusing on more important battles to come.

Their coach Rob Baxter has named a pretty strong team regardless. There are just three changes from the team that started last week. Injuries have ruled out both Phil Dollman and Gonzalo Camacho, but massive Fijian centre Sireli Naqelevuki and Ireland international wing Ian Whitten are pretty decent replacements. There's one further change in the pack as Australian international Dean Mumm is given the nod over James Hanks in the second row to partner their captain Tom Hayes. Hayes will know a win for Exeter would do his old province Munster no harm, so that will provide extra motivation for him. Former Ulster player Gareth Steenson had a disappointing day with the boot at the RDS so he'll be looking to make up for it. In Tom Johnson, James Scaysbrook and Richard Baxter they have a really battle-hardened back row and the contest there will probably define how the match goes.

For Leinster, the good news is that Brian O'Driscoll is fit to start at outside centre and comes in for Fergus McFadden who picked up a knee injury last week and is only considered fit enough for the bench. The news that O'Driscoll has been replaced as Ireland captain by Jamie Heaslip will no doubt dominate the pre-match conversation in the pubs but hopefully he will use it as motivation to show there's life in the old dog yet. The only other change to the backline is the return of Eoin Reddan in place of Isaac Boss, which considering the weather forecast, is something of a surprise.

There are three changes to the pack, the first being the welcome return from injury of Richardt Strauss, who comes straight back in at hooker is place of Sean Cronin. After withdrawing late last week due to illness, Sean O'Brien returns to the team at open-side in place of Shane Jennings. The other change is the return of Kevin McLaughlin in place of Rhys Ruddock at blindside. Ruddock, Jennings and Cronin are named on a strong bench with no specialist second row replacement.

No doubt Leinster will be replaying the opening round match in the RDS in their video work this week. They will remember how well-drilled Rob Baxter had his team, especially in defence where they held their line with military precision and never panicked even on the rare occasions Leinster broke the first line. However, as good as they were, Leinster rarely asked them too many tough questions either. Their attacking lines were predictable and laboured and they know they're now much better set up in the backline to give that defence a real test.

In truth, if they want to see a plan for beating Exeter they need only watch the highlights of last week's Clermont game. The Jaunards had plenty of power and pace, for sure, but it was most instructive to watch Wesley Fofana's superb try in which practically the whole team touched the ball at least once. It was remarkable how many times Clermont switched the point of attack, getting fresh runners coming in at smart angles to continue the move. This was the sort of rugby Leinster made their name with for the last two seasons, but we've seen little enough of it this term.

To win on Saturday and get the scores required, Leinster simply have to put in a top-class, high intensity eighty minutes. They need to pummel Exeter up front with big carries from the likes of Healy, O'Brien and Heaslip. Their breakdown work has to be utterly ruthless presenting the quickest ball possible to Reddan who needs to give the in-form Sexton his best service of the season. However with wet weather forecast, they may need to temper their wide game and grind things out instead. The maul that was so effective the last day may well be used again too and a pick and drive game, in the early stages at least. It doesn't have to be pretty, once they score the tries they need it doesn't matter a damn how they get them.

Twenty points may still not be enough and Leinster will still need at least two of the Toulon, Munster and Leicester games to go their way. However they can't allow themselves to even think of that possibility and can only go all out to get that five-point win and leave everything on the pitch. It's going to be tough but if Leinster can rediscover their old selves then they can do it.

P.S. To all the Leinster fans desperately battling through the awful weather to get over there to support the lads...may your Gods go with you...or science, if that's your thing!.
Team Lineups

Exeter Chiefs

Leinster Rugby
Teams Luke Arscott 15 Rob Kearney
Ian Whitten 14 Isa Nacewa
Sireli Naqelevuki 13 Brian O'Driscoll
Jason Shoemark12 Gordon D'Arcy
Matt Jess 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Gareth Steenson 10 Jonathan Sexton
Kevin Barrett 9 Eoin Reddan

Ben Moon 1 Cian Healy
Neil Clark 2 Richardt Strauss
Hoani Tui 3 Mike Ross
Tom Hayes (C) 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Dean Mumm 5 Devin Toner
Tom Johnson 6 Kevin McLaughlin
James Scaysbrook 7 Sean O'Brien
Richard Baxter 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Jack Yeandle 16 Sean Cronin
Carl Rimmer 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Craig Mitchell 18 Michael Bent
James Hanks 19 Rhys Ruddock
Ben White 20 Shane Jennings
Will Chudley 21 Isaac Boss
Ignacio Mieres 22 Ian Madigan
Nic Sestaret 23 Fergus McFadden

Not Considered
due to Injury

Bret Sturgess,
Gonzalo Camacho,
Phil Dollman

Eoin O'Malley,
David Doyle,
Darren Hudson,
Colm O'Shea,
Damien Browne

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-01-18