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Exeter Chiefs vs Leinster Rugby
European Rugby Champions Cup Pool C
Sandy Park, Exeter,
Sunday, 10th December 2017, 17:30

TV: Live on BT Sports

Leinster return to European action this week to face their toughest test of the season so far.

They take on the English Champions Exeter, who are also the current leaders in the Premiership. Exeter are a remarkable rags to riches story, especially in the era of the mega-bucks English clubs like Waaps, Saracens and Bath throwing their wads around like 'Loadsamoney' wannabies.

They were promoted from the Championship to the Premiership in 2010 and just seven years later, they were champions. But they did so without spending a fortune and unlike most clubs in English rugby, they actually turn a modest profit. Instead they built onto the squad which earned them promotion by developing young talent like Jack Nowell, Lewis Cowan-Dickie, Sam Simmonds and Henry Slade. They also made some smart English acquisitions like Ollie Devoto, Harry Williams, Jonny Hill, Olly Woodburn and Thomas Waldron, plus some astute foreign signings like Lachlan Turner, Julian Salvi, Michele Campagnaro and Dave Dennis.

But as well as keeping their excellent coach Rob Baxter, who brought them up, they've retained some of the team that earned promotion. Phil Dollman and Ben Moon are still going strong but perhaps the most influential is Ulsterman Gareth Steenson. He joined the club in 2008 and has become a mainstay of the club and actually lifted the Premiership trophy as captain on the day last season. He and fellow Ulster man Ian Whitten have made fantastic careers for themselves in the Premiership.

So in many ways it a rag-tag group of players compared to the international rosters of some of their big-spending rivals but somehow it works. Much of that is due to Rob Baxter who has devised a simple but hugely effective gameplan. Basically, they go for it! They're encouraged to spin the ball wide and can cut teams open but when they get into the opposition twenty-two it's over to the big boys in the pack to grind their way over the line. They're really good at it too with the likes of Waldron and flanker Don Armand well up in the try-scoring charts. They're very hard to stop close to the line so Leinster will have been working over-time on their fringe defence all week. They do tend to concede a fair few tries too though so that is something Leinster can target.

They've also remained a proper club with real roots in the community and represent the best aspects of English club rugby. When Leinster travelled to play them in January 2013, there was a lovely welcome from the locals which included free homemade pasties and rice krispie cakes made by the ladies in the supporter's club. The big time was still relatively new to them though and I remember a fan saying they couldn't believe Brian O'Driscoll was playing on their pitch. So they were hugely popular winners in the Premiership last year and you hope they never lose that proper club vibe.

Baxter has named a team showing just two changes from the team that beat Bath last week. Henry Slade comes into the centre for Sam Hill, while in the pack Jonny Hill gets the nod over Sam Skinner in the Exeter second row. Gareth Steenson captains the team from out-half and Jack Nowell is held in reserve on the bench.

As for Leinster there was disappointment for fans during the week when they learned that James Lowe wouldn't be registered to play after his two-try debut against Benetton last week. The reason given was that only two non-European players could figure in the match-day squad and those spots were taken by Scott Fardy and Jamison Gibson-Park. However Lowe and Fardy were surely signed as the type of top quality talent to give Leinster an extra edge in Europe. There seems to be a lack of joined up thinking here that one of them may have to be omitted for most of the European campaign.

The disappointment of Lowe missing out is compounded by Leo Cullen's selection of the slowest back three he has available in Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Isa Nacewa. Great player that Isa is, he simply doesn't have the gas to play wing anymore and this was ruthlessly exposed by Wasps and Clermont in the knock-out stages last season. At least there is some good news with Robbie Henshaw fit to return to the centre alongside Garry Ringrose. Johnny Sexton is back at ten and the pack is picked as expected with Sean O'Brien due to play his first European game of the season for Leinster.

Exeter really threw the cat amongst the pigeons with their excellent win away to Montpelier last time out. It effectively means the group will come down to these two teams and there's a decent chance both could qualify. With the unambitious team picked, Leinster seem to be settling for a losing bonus point. If they get it and win next week and are still ahead of Exeter by the end of the two games, they will be in reasonably decent shape.

Team Lineups

Exeter Chiefs

Leinster Rugby
Teams Phil Dollman 15 Rob Kearney
James Short 14 Fergus McFadden
Henry Slade 13 Garry Ringrose
Ian Whitten 12 Robbie Henshaw
Olly Woodburn 11 Isa Nacewa (C)
Gareth Steenson (C) 10 Johnny Sexton
Nic White 9 Luke McGrath

Alec Hepburn 1 Cian Healy
Luke Cowan-Dickie 2 Sean Cronin
Harry Williams 3 Tadhg Furlong
Mitch Lees 4 Devin Toner
Jonny Hill 5 Scott Fardy
Don Armand 6 Rhys Ruddock
Matt Kvesic 7 Sean O'Brien
Thomas Waldrom 8 Jack Conan

Replacements Jack Yeandle 16 James Tracy
Ben Moon 17 Jack McGrath
Tomas Francis 18 Michael Bent
Sam Skinner 19 James Ryan
Sam Simmonds 20
Josh van der Flier
Will Chudley 21 Jamison Gibson-Park
Sam Hill 22 Ross Byrne
Jack Nowell 23 Jordan Larmour

Not Considered
Due to Injury

Tom Daly,
Jamie Heaslip,
Barry Daly,
Joey Carbery,
Ross Molony
Officials Referee: Romain Poite

by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-12-09