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Leinster Rugby vs Ospreys
RDS Showground, Dublin
Friday, 7th January 2011, 19:35
Television: Live: TG4

Leinster take on the Ospreys at the RDS for the first time since they lost to them in the inaugural Magners League Grand Final there last May. That defeat still rankles with Leinster players and coaches; as forwards coach Jonno Gibbes put it: "they saw eight months of hard work go up in smoke!" Along with a Heineken Cup semi-final, a second Magners League championship in three years would have represented a very decent season for Leinster. However the Ospreys turned up to play and deserved their win, scoring two excellent tries and defending for their lives.

Leinster also knew that they reserved one of their worst performances of the season for the final. Everything was off, from the set-piece to the kicking to the general handling, which was dreadful. The Leinster team that day knew they had let down the departing players and coaches, the fans and most importantly, themselves. It left a cloud over the whole season so they will not be short of motivation.

They're up against one of their big rivals in terms of the top four and at the moment Leinster are in third place, one point ahead of the Ospreys in fourth. A win tomorrow evening, coupled with the Scarlets failing to win in Edinburgh on Saturday, will put Leinster into the top two for the first time this season. With a five-week break in fixtures after this, it would be a satisfying position to be in. They'd still have ground to make up on Munster in first place, but catching them is largely an academic exercise as the top two will both earn home semi-finals.

After winning last year's final, the Ospreys would have hoped they'd finally turned a corner and would become the team that the talent in their squad suggests they should be. However, this season they've been back to their usual inconsistent selves. Even the two games over Christmas sums them up, a crushing 60-17 win over local rivals the Scarlets before losing 27-25 to Cardiff on New Years Eve. They did beat an under-strength Leinster team 19-15 back in November but they were fortunate that Isa Nacewa had an off day with his place-kicking as Leinster out-scored them two tries to one. They didn't actually play all that well, but Dan Biggar's boot just got them home.

That match was Leinster's last defeat in the Magners League as they've drawn one and won two since then. On New Years Day, they played Connacht and after a dodgy first half, they eventually found their true form and earned a workmanlike bonus point win. It was pleasing to see all four Leinster tries scored by former academy players in Dave Kearney, Niall Morris and Fergus McFadden. McFadden had an excellent match and showed again how he's really developing as an inside centre under Joe Schmidt. His all round awareness has improved hugely as we can see from his sharp pass for Kearney's first try, his kick through for Morris's try and his smart improvised finish for his own try. McFadden has also benefited from his longest ever run in the team and against the Ospreys he will start his tenth game in a row.

Only he, Richardt Strauss, Devin Toner and Shane Jennings remain from the team that started last week as Leinster welcome back the majority of their Irish internationals, making eleven changes in total. McFadden shifts from the centre to the left wing to allow the return of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy in the centre. Shane Horgan returns on the right wing and Luke Fitzgerald makes a welcome return from injury at full-back. This allows Isa Nacewa a well-deserved rest after he started every game so far this season, although he is bracketed on the bench with Eoin O'Malley who's still feeling the effects of a recent rib injury. Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan resume their half-back combination in what is very close to a first choice backline.

In the pack Cian Healy and Mike Ross come in at prop alongside Strauss in the front row and Leo Cullen is back to captain the team from the second row alongside Toner. After playing the whole match last week when he was only supposed to play a half, Kevin McLaughlin is rested so Dominic Ryan plays at blindside with Jennings on the other side. Jamie Heaslip is back in at number eight for Sean O'Brien who is allowed more time to recover from the cut to his face that forced him off last week. With Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan Hines and Isaac Boss on the bench there is more experience there if required.

The Ospreys have somewhat surprisingly opted to rest a lot of their big guns ahead of their return to Heineken Cup action next week. There's no Tommy Bowe, Adam Jones, Paul James, Marty Holah, Alun-Wyn Jones or Mike Philips. Jonathan Thomas and James Hook are also held back on the bench. In contrast to the Leinster's Irish Internationals, their Welsh Internationals were busy in the derby matches over Christmas and so their coach Scott Johnson has opted to rest most of them this week. It's their choice, but it will no doubt irritate the league organisers that what should be a marquee fixture has once again been devalued by the Ospreys sending over a weakened team.

It's not a bad Ospreys team in truth, just nowhere near as strong as it could have been. Dan Biggar is the only first choice back who starts and he partners promising scrum-half Rhys Webb at half-back. Scottish international Nikki Walker makes up an experienced back three with Barry Davies and Richard Fussell. There's more experience in midfield in the powerful centre Sonny Parker who partners young Ashley Beck.

The pack is pretty good in truth with an all-Welsh International front five in Duncan Jones, Huw Bennett, Craig Mitchell, Ian Gough and Ian Evans. Justin Tipuric captains the team from open-side and this is a great honour for the 21-year old who has been tipped for great things. It is a little surprising though since former Welsh captain Ryan Jones is beside him at number eight, but Johnson says it's an investment in the future of the team. That's reasonable enough, but it is a sad reflection in how far Jones's stock has fallen in recent times. Tom Smith rounds out what is a very good pack at blindside flanker.

With the sides that have been named Leinster will be big favourites in the bookies and there will be talk of bonus point wins. However Leinster will learn from last week that they have to get the win first before thinking about bonus points. Even though it's not a full strength Ospreys side, it's far from a team of novices either and these type of selections have come to the RDS before and caused problems. In truth, Leinster will probably be more concerned with re-integrating the internationals that haven't played since the Clermont home game and resuming the style of play that Leinster showed in that match. They know they have a job of work to do with Saracens and Racing Metro coming up in the next two weeks, so they don't have much time to get back in the groove. So, it will be tough but provided they have the right attitude from the start, Leinster should have enough to win comfortably enough in the end.


Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Teams Luke Fitzgerald
15 Barry Davies
Shane Horgan
14 Nikki Walker
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Sonny Parker
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Ashley Beck
Fergus McFadden 11 Richard Fussell
Jonathan Sexton
10 Dan Biggar
Eoin Reddan
9 Rhys Webb

Cian Healy
1 Duncan Jones
Richardt Strauss
2 Huw Bennett
Mike Ross
3 Craig Mitchell
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Ian Gough
Devin Toner
5 Ian Evans
Dominic Ryan
6 Tom Smith
Shane Jennings
7 Justin Tupuric (C)
Jamie Heaslip
8 Ryan Jones

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright
16 Mefin Davies
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Ryan Bevington
Clint Newland
18 Cai Griffiths
Nathan Hines
19 James Goode
Rhys Ruddock
20 Jonathan Thomas
Isaac Boss
21 Jamie Nutbrown
Ian Madigan
22 James Hook
Eoin O'Malley / Isa Nacewa
23 Gareth Owen

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stan Wright,
Rob Kearney,
Paul Ryan

Jonathan Spratt,
Ben Lewis,
Ben John,
Shane Williams,
Conor McInerney,
Lee Byrne,
Jerry Collins
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)
Assistant Referees: Simon McDowell, Mark Hermin (both IRFU)
4th Official: Barry O'Keefe (Leinster Rugby Referees)
5th Official: Gary Glennon (Leinster Rugby Referees)
TMO: Seamus Flannery (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-01-06