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Leinster Rugby vs Gloucester,
Lansdowne Road, Dublin 4,
21rd October 2006, 17:30

The Heineken Cup kicks off this weekend and Leinster fans could be forgiven for feeling a touch of déjà vu.

First off we host a team from the English West country, then we have our first away trip to Scotland. In December we host a French team, and then complete the double header the week before Christmas. Then in January we host the Scottish team and complete our fixtures with a vist to the English West country. Even the times for the first three games are the same as last year!

Nonetheless, there's a terrific season ahead of us and it starts this Saturday against Gloucester.

Gloucester are best remembered in this competition for the "miracle match" in which Munster beat them in 2003. At the time Gloucester were the run-away Premiership leaders and had approached the match with genuine aspirations to become the first English team to win in Thomond Park. The rest is history though as Munster hammered them 33-6 and it is said that team never recovered. It's not quite true though as they recovered enough to top the Premiership. However Wasps gave them another thumping in the final and this double blow effectively destroyed that side.

For the following few seasons they returned to mid-table mediocrity. Nigel Melville quit as coach and Dean Ryan took over. Gloucester fans expected a tough, grizzled forward-oriented side in Ryan's image and for a while that seemed to happen. But then last season they began to turn a few heads. The grizzled pack was still there but there were now also a number of exciting young backs like Ryan Lamb, Anthony Allen, Mark Foster, James Bailey and Olly Morgan. They finished the season in fifth place having narrowly failed to make the semi-finals after losing a thriller to Wasps. They had some consolation though when they won the European Challenge Cup beating London Irish 36-34 in a terrific final. Ryan said at the time, We've got a lot of talented young players, and they will be great players if they listen and learn.

This season they seem to be doing just that. They're sitting third in the Premiership and are undefeated. The young backs have continued to develop and Lamb, Allen and Morgan are now tipped for England debuts in the autumn internationals. They've also got older heads like Mike Tindall, Peter Richards and Iain Balshaw to lend some experience. However, despite the backs getting a lot of attention, their pack should not be underestimated. They have a tough front five with plenty of Latin bulk in Christian Califano, Carlos Nieto, Olivier Azam and Marco Bortolami. Their backrow has been very consistent this season also. Peter Buxton is a typically abrasive number six, and Andy Hazell is the type of specialist open-side who England have been crying out for since Neil Back retired. At number eight is Jamie Forrester, a potential super-star whose all-round skills have seen him compared to Zinzan Brooke.

So we're up against it this weekend, but Leinster will still be quietly confident. Yes, it hasn't been an ideal build-up this week with concern over injuries and disciplinary committees. However hopefully this, and the reaction to the dreadful performance last week against Borders, will generate a siege mentality. Leinster need to recapture the level of performance that beat Munster with the same defensive intensity and aggression at the breakdown. If they can do that, they'll win enough ball to set the backs free. The young Gloucester backs have been rampant in the Guinness Premiership but they will find that the Heineken Cup is a serious step up from that. Especially when you're facing a three-quarter line of four Lions!

Of course, we the supporters have a huge part to play in this. They're used to having a vociferous, passionate crowd behind them at Kingsholm and it's up to us to make sure that's what they're facing this Saturday. Gloucester are apparently bringing about 1,500 fans over with them. We will of course enjoy a friendly pint with them before and after the match but during the match we will do our best to deafen them with the noise of our chanting and singing. Judging by reports we're looking at 20,000 plus crowd so hopefully we'll make it a great occasion with a winning start to the HC!

ALLEZ LES BLEUS!

by Jim O'Connor, © 2006-10-21

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