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Leinster Rugby vs Wasps
European Champions Cup Quarter-final
Aviva Stadium, Dublin,
Saturday, 1st April 2017, 15:15

Television: Live BT Sports

So Leinster's biggest game in ages has arrived and it's time to see if Leinster can return to the higher echelons of European rugby after years in the wilderness!

Well that's a bit of an overstatement, as in fact it's only two years ago that Leinster were playing Bath at home in a European quarter-final. But that was in the dour final days of the Matt O'Connor regime and seems much longer ago. That day, Leinster had to rely on the boot of Ian Madigan to win as they couldn't fashion a single try in a somewhat fortuitous win. One thing we can be fairly sure of this Saturday though, is that there will be tries as the top two entertainers of European rugby go head to head.

It's remarkable how similar Wasps and Leinser's respective records are this season. They both topped their pool in Europe with four wins and a draw. They both top their domestic leagues with only three defeats each in eighteen games. However their try statistics are even more interesting. In 24 league and European games combined Leinster have scored 110 tries and Wasps have scored 101, both averaging over four tries a game. However, they're both pretty good at conceding tries too with Leinster conceding a worrying 48 tries and Wasps conceding a whopping 62 in the same 24 games. By comparison, two of their main rivals for both European and domestic honours Munster and Saracens have only conceded 31 and 25 tries respectively for the season. For all the entertaining rugby that Leinster and Wasps are playing, you are reminded of the saying that defence wins championships.

Both teams come into the match on the back of unsatisfying performances. Wasps managed to beat second from bottom Worcester, but it was a game that turned on a red card for the Warriors and while Wasps scored six tries, they still managed to concede five, raising concerns about their defence again. Wasps were at least relatively comfortable winners though, whereas Leinster had to sweat it out at the end against Cardiff, just about holding on to win by a single point. A bit like the Castres away match, Leinster were fooled by a good start and they seemed to mentally switch off after that. The performance became incredibly sloppy and ragged and unforced errors allowed Cardiff to strike from deep for three almost identical breakaway tries. At least the team showed some character to cobble together a winning score through the maul and in truth, a performance like that will have focused minds in training far more than another handy win. However similar defending off broken field play will play right into the hands of Wasps and their star-studded backline.

This will be the eighth time Leinster and Wasps have faced each other in Europe. The record in the first seven games stands at four Wasps wins, two Leinster wins and a draw. As they were paired in the pools for the two seasons before this, Leinster have witnessed at first hand their growth from a club just about surviving into one of the nouveau riche of Europe. This was predicated on the club's controversial decision to leave London and re-locate to Coventry. The funds generated from this has allowed them to recruit a number of star international players which have fitted in nicely with a strong group of home-grown players. Last season's meetings with Wasps were particularly nasty for Leinster. They suffered their heaviest home defeat in the competition in the first meeting and their heaviest competition defeat ever in the second meeting. That 51-10 mauling was particularly humiliating for Leinster and though there are few from that team that will feature tomorrow due to a combination of retirements, departures and injuries, those who were involved will be determined for some payback.

In those two brutal defeats, George Smith and Charles Piatua were two of the main architects of Leinster's destruction. They're both gone now but the deep pockets at the Ricoh Arena have seen them replaced by stars such as Kurtley Beale, Willie le Roux, Danny Cipriani and our own Marty Moore. Ironically enough Moore's last game for Leinster was in that humiliation at the Ricoh as he went off with a hamstring injury. He's seen his friend and one time rival Tadhg Furlong take Mike Ross's jersey for both province and country and Furlong's star has ascended to the point where he's virtually everyone's pick to start for the Lions. Moore has been out of the international squad since his move away with Finlay Bealham and John Ryan chosen ahead of him. But Moore remains a top quality tighthead and he seems to have put the fitness problems which overshadowed his last two years at Leinster behind him. He'll be determined to show the watching Joe Schmidt what he's been missing.

He won't be the only ex Leinster player though playing for Wasps though as Jimmy Gopperth is named at inside centre. Him and Cipriani looked set for a battle for the ten jersey this season, but instead they've both played mostly dovetailing well with Cipriani's creativity and Gopperth's more solid goal-kicking. However, while Gopperth is a solid unit and a decent tackler, Leinster will target that midfield in defence and Robbie Henshaw will fancy his chances of imposing himself physically. The Leinster midfield of Sexton, Henshaw and Ringrose played the last three matches of the Six Nations together and this combination will be crucial to Leinster's chances, both in attack and in leading an aggressive defensive line that will be critical in upsetting the Wasps play-makers. Something similar to the Irish defensive line two weeks ago would be a nice starting point.

The forward battle will be crucial as well of course. Last season Wasps overwhelmed Leinster physically in the Ricoh Arena with massive ball carriers like Ashley Johnson, Nathan Hughes and James Haskell making huge inroads. Leinster will be determined not to let that happen again and Tadhg Furlong will fancy his chances at getting at Matt Mullan in the scrum. The game will ultimately come down to the breakdown, which team can get the quickest ball and who slows down the other's possession and Leinster will need big games from Dan Leavy and Sean O'Brien, who had an ordinary Six Nations championship by his standards.

Wasps have named a team showing six changes from the team that started last week. England international Elliot Daly returns at outside centre to partner Gopperth. Kurtley Beale, Willie Le Roux and the league's top try scorer Christian Wade make up an extravagantly talented back three. Danny Cipriani and Dan Robson will pull the strings from half-back. In the pack Dai Young has opted to rotate his entire front row with Matt Mullan, Tommy Taylor and Jake Cooper-Woolley all coming in to start. That means Marty Moore will have to bide his time and make his impact off the bench instead alongside the massive hooker Ashley Johnson. The exceptional lock Joe Launchbury, arguably the player of the Six Nations, returns to captain the side from the second row alongside Kearnan Myall. The final change sees Nathan Hughes return at number eight in a backrow with James Haskell and the highly rated youngster Thomas Young. It's a very strong side.

Leinster have named a team showing nine changes from last week. The international midfield of Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose all return in the only changes to the backline. Most eye-catchingly, Joey Carbery is retained at full back after a nervous performance last week. Adam Byrne is also retained after a poor defensive outing last week and both players will be determined to impose themselves on the game while cutting out the basic errors. Some were calling from the return of more experienced operators like Fergus McFadden and Zane Kirchner but they have to be content with spots on the bench.

There's another big call in the back row as Dan Leavy is preferred to Josh van der Flier. Again it's a form call but this will be the biggest match Leavy has started in. He's joined in the back row by Jack Conan and Sean O'Brien. In the front five, Jack McGrath, Tadhg Furlong and Devin Toner all return as expected.

It has potential to be a shoot-out but the rain forecast could put a dampner on things. It really is too tight a match to call however, it could go either way. Hopefully, in front of a near sell-out crowd, Leinster will do enough to move onto the semi-finals.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Joey Carbery 15 Kurtley Beale
Adam Byrne 14 Christian Wade
Garry Ringrose 13 Elliot Daly
Robbie Henshaw 12 Jimmy Gopperth
Isa Nacewa (C)
11 Willie Le Roux
Johnny Sexton 10 Danny Cipriani
Luke McGrath
9 Dan Robson

Jack McGrath 1 Matt Mullan
Richardt Strauss
2 Tommy Taylor
Tadhg Furlong 3 Jake Cooper-Woolley
Devin Toner 4 Joe Launchbury (C)
Hayden Triggs 5 Kearnan Myall
Dan Leavy 6 James Haskell
Sean O'Brien 7 Thomas Young
Jack Conan 8 Nathan Hughes

Replacements James Tracy 16 Ashley Johnson
Cian Healy 17 Simon McIntyre
Michael Bent 18 Marty Moore
Ross Molony 19 Matt Symons
Josh van der Flier 20
Alex Rieder
Jamison Gibson-Park 21 Joe Simpson
Fergus McFadden 22 Alapati Leiua
Zane Kirchner 23 Josh Bassett

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jordi Murphy,
James Ryan,
Jeremy Loughman,
Dominic Ryan,
Dave Kearney,
Rob Kearney,
Jamie Heaslip,
Rhys Ruddock

James Gaskell,
Rob Miller,
Sam Jones,
Kyle Eastmond,
Alex Lundberg,
George Edgson
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales),
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite (France), Ian Davies (Wales),
TMO: Jonathan Mason (Wales),
Citing Commissioner: Yves Thieffine (France)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-03-31