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Leinster Rugby vs Wasps
European Rugby Champions Cup Pool 2 Round 1
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Sunday, 19th October 2014, 17:15

Television: Live - BT Sports

This used to be one of the best weeks of the rugby season, as fans across Europe anticipated the beginning of the Heineken Cup. Alas that great tournament is dead, killed by a bunch of snake-oil salesmen from England and France.

All hail the visionary new tournament created by the wealthy French and English club-owners, who pretty much all run their clubs at a loss, but who still see fit to lecture the game on economics. You can see the depth of their vision in their choice of name for their new tournament, a bland knock-off of soccer's Champions League.

Continuing their slavish copying of the Champions League, instead of one lousy sponsor in Heineken, the new tournament will now have five "sponsorship partners" instead. Except that rugby isn't soccer and as things stand they have only one sponsorship partner and it's...well...Heineken.

But, the English club owners like Bath's Bruce Craig, the self-elected Emperor of European rugby, will say it doesn't matter because of all that lovely money coming from the TV companies. For the first time, the matches will be split between BT Sports and Sky Sports, with fans now having to fork out for not one but two subscriptions (note: check the internet before you shell out to BT Sports). As BT sports have the prime slots though, and they're only interested in the English clubs, Irish teams can get used to being treated like second class citizens in terms of the fixture dates.

In Leinster's four games so far, three are on a Sunday. Even the one Saturday game Leinster have against Harlequins in the Aviva Stadium is hardly at a family friendly time of 7.45 in the evening. But the English have the money and as their fans lectured us all last season, that's all the counts, right?

So there's quite an amount of bitter irony in that Wasps fans are now feeling the harsh edge of this brave new world. They're now being railroaded by their own money-men who have, literally sent them to Coventry!. While Wasps RFC have never really had a settled home, they were still a London club or certainly in the greater London area, but now they've been moved 100 odd miles up the road to the midlands and the Ricoh Arena.

The fans are up in arms about having to make a four-hour round trip to attend a 'home' game but the club's executives are happy enough to write them off, because there simply aren't enough of them. There has been some speculation that owner Derek Richardson only became interested in Wasps because he wanted to get his hands on the Ricoh Arena. According to Richardson, the money generated by the move will help them compete with Northampton, Bath and Saracens but in the rugby-saturated midlands, will any fans be there to watch them? Most likely Richardson and his cronies will be too busy counting their money to care.

To be fair, there are some decent long-term Wasps fans out there who deserve some sympathy at seeing their club become rugby's version of the MK Dons. But once English club rugby sold its soul to the corporate vultures, they would eventually become the play-thing of millionaires. It's very likely that this won't be the last English club this happens to.

So it's in a fairly depressing climate all round that the two teams will meet on Sunday, with the other two members of the pool Castres and Harlequins playing tonight. When the pool was announced, it looked tough enough but all four teams have struggled for form this season. At fifth place in the Premiership, Wasps are the highest placed team in their respective league, with Harlequins seventh, Leinster sixth in the Pro12 and Castres a remarkable eleventh in Top 14. While the Munster-Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Toulon-Leicester pools vie for the title of the "Group of Death", there seems to be no contest for the title of "Group of Crap".

After the glory days of the Warren Gatland-Lawrence Dallaglio era, Wasps have been, at best, a middling club in recent seasons. They have a Director of Rugby in Dai Young whose most notable achievement in the game is staying employed for over a decade despite having brought no discernible success to any side he's coached. Young has named unchanged team from the side that defeated Bath last week.

Joe Launchbury is one of the best young forwards in Europe and he's named in a strong second row alongside Welsh international Bradley Davies. England international Matt Mullan is a handy scrummager and he's joined in the front row by two Italians in Carlo Festuccia and Lorenzo Cittadini. James Haskell skippers the team from the back row alongside Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes.

Another Italain international, Andrea Masi, is a class act at full back and Sailosi Tagicakibau and Christian Wade offer plenty of pace on the wings. The promising Elliot Daly and Alapati Leiua are in the centre and Andy Goode and Joe Simpson form a very experienced half-back pairing. All in all, it's a handy unit but one that hasn't won on the road so far this season.

Leinster last played them in Adams Park in the Challenge Cup quarter-final two seasons ago. In an enjoyable romp of a match that at times resembled a Barbarians game, Leinster won 48-28 with the sides splitting nine tries between them. Wasps have probably improved a little bit since that game but it's fair to say Leinster have declined. After their abysmal performance against Munster, Leinster would have been hoping for better than a scrappy win in Zebre. Matt O'Connor tried to talk it up, but it was the first time they failed to take a bonus point against the Italians.

However, this week is a must-win game so he needs to find a way to coax a performance out of his team from somewhere. There's seemingly more bad news on the injury front with Rob Kearney and Mike Ross apparently ruled out through injury. Now admittedly Matt O'Connor has resembled more of a "Bannestoir" this season with some of the dummy teams he's named. But taking the team named at face value there are five changes from the Zebre match. Michael Bent and Sean Cronin come into the front row for Martin Moore and Richardt Strauss. Devin Toner replaces Kane Douglas in the second row and Jamie Heaslip and Dominic Ryan return to the back row. At half-back Eoin Reddan and Jimmy Gopperth return with Madigan moving to full back in place of Kearney and the three-quarter-line remains unchanged. Somewhat surprisingly, Luke Fitzgerald has been named on the bench, but Leinster fans won't believe anything until they see him run onto the pitch.

On the face of things, it's a dispiriting team but Leinster still do have weapons in their arsenal, they just need to find a way to get them firing again. To begin with, they need to get their ball carriers running onto the ball at pace instead of taking it standing still. This is the most basic lesson given to every rugby forward at his first training session yet most often we see Leinster forwards getting the ball at a standing start and watch them struggle to gain even a yard.

The set-piece needs to tighten up too but most importantly the breakdown work needs to improve dramatically. Put simply, Leinster need to get mean again and perhaps watch a few videos of Brad Thorn's brief spell with them. That man never complained to referees about players slowing down rucks, he just hit them so hard (legally, mind) that they had to think long and hard about about doing it again.

The half backs simply have to find some form from somewhere, speeding up their service to the runners and kicking only when there's a reason to. This pointless cross-kicking to the wings should return to being an occasional option rather than the default move when trucking it up the middle hasn't yielded anything. The outside backs need to run better, smarter lines and work much harder to get up in support when a runner breaks the line. And the whole team needs to improve defensively and be much more aggressive in their linespeed.

Of course none of this is brain surgery, but Leinster have been unable to complete most of these basic rugby skills over the last season or so and supporters are tired of watching it and hearing the excuses afterwards. Yes, there are injuries but it's still a team with plenty of powerful runners up front in Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Rhys Ruddock and Jamie Heaslip. If they can create momentum there's plenty of gas out wide too in the likes of Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner and Noel Reid.

It's going to be a tough match but if Leinster trust their ability and get the best out of themselves they can come through with a win.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Ian Madigan 15 Andrea Masi
Zane Kirchner 14 Christian Wade
Gordon D'Arcy 13 Elliot Daly
Noel Reid 12 Alapati Leiua
Darragh Fanning 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau
Jimmy Gopperth 10 Andy Goode
Eoin Reddan 9 Joe Simpson

Jack McGrath 1 Matt Mullan
Sean Cronin 2 Carlo Festuccia
Michael Bent 3 Lorenzo Cittadini
Devin Toner
4 Joe Launchbury
Mike McCarthy 5 Bradley Davies
Rhys Ruddock6 Ashley Johnson
Dominic Ryan 7 James Haskell (C)
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 Nathan Hughes

Replacements Richardt Strauss 16 Tom Lindsay
Ed Byrne 17 Simon McIntyre
Tadhg Furlong 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley
Kane Douglas 19 James Gaskell
Jack Conan
Sam Jones
Isaac Boss 21 Charlie Davies
Mick McGrath 22 Rob Miller
Luke Fitzgerald 23 Chris Bell

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jordi Murphy,
Dave Kearney,
Dan Leavy,
Colin O'Shea,
Tom Daly,
Shane Jennings,
Sean O'Brien,
Cian Healy,
Fergus McFadden,
Martin Moore,
Rob Kearney,
Mike Ross

Ruaridh Jackson
Officials Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU),
Assistant referees: Neil Hennessy, Simon Rees (both WRU),
TMO: Gareth Simmonds (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-10-17