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Leinster Rugby vs Edinburgh Rugby
Royal Dublin Society
Saturday, 22nd September 2007, 17:30

Referee: Phil Fear (WRU),
Sub Referee: Colin Stanley (IRFU),
Touch Judge: Jonathan Peake (IRFU)

So, here we go again!

Leinster kick off their season against Edinburgh this Saturday at 5.30. After playing them four times last year, familiarity bred a little contempt so this year we play them...another four times! The pubs in Edinburgh must be sick of the sight of Leinster fans at this stage, so God only knows how the players feel about meeting each other again. That said, due to some trifling affair over in France, Saturday's occasion will carry a bit of the unknown. Leinster are missing seven internationals to the World Cup but Edinburgh are missing even more and with their trials and tribulations behind the scenes this summer it's hard to know to expect of the side they're fielding.

Last season ended in bitter despair for Leinster with the dismal performance in Cardiff. Without wishing to trawl back through that nightmare, you would hope that all the players involved would never wish to let themselves down again so badly. But enough of that, what does this season promise for Leinster? Well, the much-maligned pack has been strengthened again. Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings have returned home after two years with Leicester. It was a measure of the respect they were held in that the two were chosen to lift the Guinness Premiership trophy by Leicester captain Martin Corry. Hopefully the two boys will bring back some of the hard-bitten attitude of the Tigers squad, especially as we have to play the Tigers later in the season. The front row has been strengthened with the recruitment of props Stephen Knoop and Juan Francisco-Gomez. Now qualified to play for Ireland, Knoop has been a consistent performer for Connacht for the last few seasons who can prop on both sides of the scrum. The Argentinean prop Gomez arrives via a short stint with Stade Francais. It is hoped he'll bring some real power and aggression to the scrum. At 23 Gomez is just a baby in prop terms unlike Ollie Le Roux who's 35. The massive South African will arrive in October once the Currie Cup is finished. Exactly what role he'll play remains to be seen. It's been suggested he'll play hooker although perhaps he'll feature more as an impact sub. Certainly he'll hope to pass on his considerable experience to the younger props.

There are many younger players in the academy who'll be looking to make an impression this season. Three players who got a taste of action last season and who'll be looking for more this year are Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Kevin McLaughlin. All three are very promising talents who should feature more regularly this season.

In the backs there's been less recruitment, despite the loss of Denis Hickie and Kieran Lewis. However, this is indicative of the flood of home-grown talent coming through. Chris Keane has arrived from Connacht to compete with Chris Whitaker for the scrum-half spot, although Cillan Willis and Paul O'Donoghue will also hope to have some say too. With Felipe Contepomi away at the World Cup, Jonny Sexton will be hoping for a run at out-half. Ireland under-21 Grand Slam winning out-half Ian Keatley is another player with huge potential. Further out in the backs Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney will be competing to nail down the number 11 jersey vacated by Hickie although they'll face competition from the bulked up Fionn Carr, who's made a big impression pre-season. Full-back Ross McCarron and centre Fergus McFadden are two more young guns who will hope to see some action while the internationals are away.

So all in all, there's plenty to be optimistic about this season. A big question though hangs over Michael Chieka's management of the squad. Last season there appeared to be a division between the starting fifteen that automatically got their spots and the squad members who were largely ignored. Hopefully this season, Chieka will trust more in the home-grown talent and take a chance on them.

So for tomorrow evening, Leinster have named a strong looking side. Juan Francisco-Gomez makes his competitive debut at tight-head prop alongside Stan Wright and Bernard Jackman. Stephen Knoop has to content himself with a place on the bench. Leo Cullen returns as captain to partner Trevor Hogan in the second row. The back-row is the regular one of Stephen Keogh, Jamie Heaslip and Keith Gleeson but Shane Jennings and Cameron Jowitt will be looking to change that this season. Both are on the bench in a 5-2 split to the forwards, something of a departure for Chieka.

In the backline Rob Kearney, Gary Brown and Luke Fitzgerald make up an exciting and pacy back three while there's an all Aussie midfield of Christian Warner and Michael Berne. Jonny Sexton is given a start at out-half and he'll be partnered by Chris Whitaker. Cillian Willis will hope to see some action from the bench as will Fergus McFadden.

The Edinburgh team is largely unknown but there are a few familiar faces. Andrew Maxwell and Matt Mutschin are former Ulster players and Ben Gissing is of course a former favourite of those on the Donnybrook terraces. A "fully-committed" player, Gissing always played aggressively and was never known as "Gentle Ben". He'll be eager to re-acquaint himself with his former team-mates and perhaps prove a point to Michael Chieka who let him go. Number eight Simon Cross is a fine player and Phil Godman is also an international but other than that, there's not too many recognisable names. That said, Leinster would be foolish to get complacent. In recent times, many Scottish teams, supposedly weaker on paper, have upset the form book against Leinster.

Leinster have practically their first choice pack available and they should look to dominate early territorially. The big question is how quickly the midfield can gel. If they gel quickly and get good possession to the back three then a good win is on the cards. With it being the first game of the season, things could well be a bit rusty so fans should be patient. With the Ospreys having lost their first two games of the season, Leinster have a good chance to get ahead of last year's champions. And as last year proved, every point is vital in this league.


Leinster Rugby   Edinburgh Rugby
Rob Kearney 15 Nick De Luca
Gary Brown 14 Andrew Turnbull
Michael Berne 13 Ben Cairns
Christian Warner 12 John Houston
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Andrew Maxwell
Jonathan Sexton 10 Phil Godman
Chris Whitaker 9 Ben Meyer
Stanley Wright 1 Augusto Allori
Bernard Jackman 2 Andwrew Kelly
Juan Francisco-Gomez 3 Geoff Cross
Trevor Hogan 4 Matt Mustchin
Leo Cullen (C) 5 Ben Gissing
Stephen Keogh 6 Alan MacDonald
Keith Gleeson 7 Ross Rennie
Jamie Heaslip 8 Simon Cross (C)
Brian Blaney 16 Steven Lawrie
Stephen Knoop 17 Ryan Grant
Devin Toner 18 Craig Hamilton
Cameron Jowitt 19 Roland Reid
Shane Jennings 20 Greig Laidlaw
Cillian Willis 21 Alistair Warnock
Fergus McFadden 22 James Thompson

by Jim O'Connor, © 2007-09-24