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Wasps v Leinster
European Champions Cup Pool 5
Ricoh Arena, Coventry
Saturday, 23rd January 2016, 15:15

Television: Live - BT Sports, Highlights TG4

Ah that was great!

There was an element of nervousness in both the crowd and the coaching staff before last week's game against Bath as "Cullen's Cubs" were sent out to do battle with the English Premiership finalists of last season. The nervousness proved to be completely unfounded as each one of the six players starting their first European game played with no fear. To a man, they were excellent and Bath were a little shell-shocked by the end and even their fans in the terrace were asking the names of these young lads, especially the number 13. Cullen's gamble paid off in spades and even though the game had little material worth to Leinster, the experience gained by the young team and the goodwill generated in the crowd will hopefully stand to Leinster for the rest of the season.

Last week's win ended Bath's interest in the tournament for this season and Leinster have the chance to do the same to Wasps tomorrow. For the second time in the pool, Wasps lost to a last minute try last week and now they have to win tomorrow to have any chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. They've been hit by a spate of injuries too especially in the three-quarter line to Ben Jacobs, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Alapati Leiua, Andrea Masi and Christian Wade. So they've been forced to name the inexperienced pair of Josh Bassett and Brendan Macken for tomorrow, both of whom will be starting only their second games of the season. Ex-Leinster player Macken will be anxious to prove Leinster wrong for letting him go and he pairs up with Elliot Daly, a player whose excellent form has earned him a spot in England's squad for the Six Nations. Bassett makes up a back three with two extremely dangerous Kiwis in Charles Piutau and Frank Halai. Another former Leinster player Jimmy Gopperth is named at half-back alongside Joe Simpson. Gopperth wasn't always that popular in his time at Leinster with the fans through some inconsistent performances and being inextricably linked to former coach Matt O'Connor. But he's landed on his feet in Coventry and has been playing very well and place-kicking beautifully. A very affable and popular member of the squad in his time in Dublin, he will doubtless also want to remind Leinster of what they let go.

In the pack influential number eight Nathan Hughes is only fit enough to be named on the bench but James Haskell is fit to return to play blindside so Sam Jones switches to number eight with the evergreen George Smith named at openside. Another English international Joe Launchbury is fit to be named alongside Bradley Davies in the second row. Matt Mullan, Edd Shervington and Lorenzo Cittadini are the front row and they will hope to enjoy the same advantage at scrum-time they had in the RDS.

For Leinster, none of the six youngsters who started last week are retained as Cullen wants them fresh for the Dragons game next Friday and also needs to give several internationals a run-out two weeks before the start of the Six Nations. Cullen has rung the changes with only Dave Kearney retaining the same jersey as last week with Zane Kirchner, Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy all switching positions. Kirchner switches to the right wing to allow Rob Kearney come in at full back with Dave Kearney continuing on the left wing. There's a new centre pairing in Noel Reid and Luke Fitzgerald with Eoin Reddan and Johnny Sexton selected at half back. With Isa Nacewa rested, Sexton will captain Leinster for the first time.

There's an all new front row in Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Marty Moore. It was be an interesting afternoon for Moore considering he's playing the side he's been heavily linked with joining next summer. Devin Toner and Rhys Ruddock are named in the second row after Tom Denton was forced to pull out with a groin injury. Ruddock's selection in the boiler room is an interesting one. He's switched there in games before but has never started before. Ireland coach Joe Schmidt will keep an keen eye on his performance especially on how the scrum goes. In the back row Jordi Murphy switches to openside with Dominic Ryan and Jamie Heaslip coming in to complete the pack. Cathal Marsh is named on the bench and will make his European debut should he come on.

This is Leinster's final European game of the season and while the game is a dead rubber in terms of qualification, Leinster won't be short of motivation. Firstly Leinster are in a decent run of form having won four games in a row and they'll want to keep than winning run going. Secondly, the more senior players will have been hearing all week about how good the youngsters were against Bath and they'll be anxious to remind everyone what they can do. Thirdly, eleven of the starting team were named in the Ireland squad on Wednesday and they'll want to impress Joe Schmidt. And finally they'll want some good old revenge on Wasps for the hammering they inflicted on them in the RDS back in November.

Wasps were good that day and thoroughly deserved their win, but Leinster were simply awful. That defeat effectively killed Leinster's quarter-final chances straight away and the players will have been haunted by the memory of such a desperate performance. So what better way of excising some of those demons than by ending Wasps European hopes for the season?

Wasps will be favourites at home but if Leinster can live with them up front they could target their backline and make it five wins in a row.

by Jim O'Connor, © 2016-01-28