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Cardiff Blues vs Leinster Rugby
Cardiff Arms Park, Cardiff
Friday, 8th February 2013, 19:30

Television: No Coverage.... thanks BBC Wales!

There's no getting away from it, it's been a tough few weeks for Leinster fans. First up there was the exit from the Heineken Cup and that was followed up the following week by the news that Jonathan Sexton would be moving on to play his club rugby in France next season.

Let's take the Heineken Cup exit first.

The team played bravely over in Exeter but despite getting the bonus point win, too many other results didn't go their way. True to their word Exeter turned up to play and gave Leinster a real battle, shaming the efforts of much bigger clubs like Toulon and Racing Metro over the weekend. Despite that, Leinster got the bonus point try relatively early (as they did against the Scarlets) and could possibly have tagged on a few more tries to set Munster a bigger target for Sunday.

However such was the paucity of effort from a disinterested, second-string Racing Metro team, Munster probably would have reached any target set them. In truth, Leinster did well to reach their target of ten points from the last two games and it was the performances in the first four rounds that let them down, not the final two. The whole squad and management will have spent the last three weeks playing the "what if" game with regards to the first four games.

What if they'd brought more intensity to their first match against Exeter? What if they'd kicked on after the excellent first half in Llanelli and gotten a bonus point or at least a few more tries? What if they'd tagged on one more penalty to get a draw away to Clermont? And finally, what if they'd performed better at home to the same opponents a week later? Ultimately it was the lack of tries that did for Leinster in terms of qualification and in truth they only had themselves to blame there, scoring their second-lowest total in the pool stages in the last ten years.

Of course there were extenuating circumstances with the massive injury list in the early rounds but perhaps there was also a touch of complacency as well, players being just happy to do enough. If this exit has taught them anything it's that you have to be scrapping for every try and point going from round one, because you never know when you're going to need them.

So the dream of a fourth Heineken Cup final in five years in the Aviva in May is dead but Leinster will be back next season with hopefully a renewed hunger. They will have to do it without Jonathan Sexton however as he'll be playing in Paris for at least the next two seasons with Racing Metro 92. There had of course been speculation in the press about Sexton having difficulties with the IRFU in terms of reaching an agreement about a new contract, but Leinster fans were hoping that, as in the past, this was just media scare-mongering and a new deal would be reached.

However it was not to be and though we've yet to hear a word from the man himself, the IRFU were quick to rush out a self-serving statement. They stated that Sexton had taken a huge financial offer that they couldn't match, widely reported to be in the region of 750,000 euro per year. They were sorry to lose him, but in the circumstances it was beyond their means to make him stay. In other words Sexton was a greedy mercenary and the Union was blameless in the matter.

But if Sexton was purely motivated by money, why didn't he take the offer from Racing immediately when it was offered back in December? Or indeed why did he sign for the IRFU two seasons ago when he was made a much bigger offer from Stade Francais? Why was he trying to sort out a new deal with Ireland as far back as last May only to be ignored by the Union for six months?

It was well known that Sexton wasn't demanding that the IRFU match the offer from France, instead he was asking that he finally be recognised as the world-class player he is by being bumped up to the top-grade Irish international salary, not an unreasonable request for a player who can attract massive offers from France like that.

However, as with so many times in the past the Union chose to play "chicken" in contract negotiations almost daring Sexton to go abroad. The IRFU were perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by comments by Racing Metro's owner Jacky Lorenzetti who publicly stated that he thought Sexton was just using them to bump up his Ireland contract. Perhaps the wily Lorenzetti played it beautifully and relied on the arrogance of the Union in thinking they could dictate terms to a character like Sexton. In the end, Sexton called their bluff and told them where to go. Lorenzetti got his man and though his team is rebuilding, they can now do it around the best number ten in Europe.

There's an argument doing the rounds that this is some sort of a victory for the Union as they will still have him available for Ireland and won't have to pay his big salary. However this short-term penny-pinching strategy isn't wise either as the attrition rate from playing the Top14 is very high and it remains to be seen what physical state he'll be in when he turns up for international duty. They've lost the ability to dictate how much one of their key players actually plays at a time where he should be in his prime.

For Leinster it's a disastrous situation as they've lost a proven match-winner at number ten and you only have to look at the number of average fly-halves making a living at top European clubs to know how precious a commodity that is. Of course Leinster will now hope that Ian Madigan can emerge from Sexton's shadow to become a top fly-half, just as Sexton emerged from Felipe Contepomi's shadow when he left in 2009. However as much as Madigan's performances have improved in the last two seasons, he's still very much a potentially great player, whereas Sexton is the real deal. It's worrying times but at least the Sexton debacle seems to have woken the blazers up and there was finally good news in the last week as key players Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Rob Kearney have signed new contracts.

But back to the rugby and one small consolation of being out of any meaningful European competition for this season is that Leinster can fully focus on winning the league. In amidst all the Heineken Cup glory it's been a bugbear for the squad that they've not won their own league since 2008, especially as they've lost the last three Grand Finals, two of them at home. For both the last two finals however, there's no doubt that the physical toll of playing Heineken Cup finals the week before played a massive part in the defeats.

They're unlikely to be playing a final at home this time however as Ulster still have a 12 point lead over them with nine games to go and look uncatchable at the top of the table. However Glasgow in second place are only a point ahead of Leinster and securing second place and a home semi-final will be their main ambition for now. Of course with the Six Nations going on around them for the next four league games, the spotlight will be off Leinster somewhat but this is still a crucial part of the season. There will be a mixture of players disappointed not to be in the Ireland squad and younger players looking for gametime to improve their chances of getting a contract next season. So there's still huge motivation there for both the individual players and the team.

Tomorrow they take on a Cardiff team who are having another pretty miserable season. They only won one game in the Heineken Cup this season and poor form sees them back in seventh place in the table. The last time they played Leinster back in October, they put in a frankly disgraceful performance despite fielding a team featuring several of their international stars. They conceded nine tries in a 59-22 defeat and the first thing on their minds will be to make amends for that humiliation. Cardiff have actually won their last two league games, including a shock win against Munster in Musgrave park. They're still very much in the bottom half of the table though eleven points off the play-off places and they will need to go on a major winning streak to get into contention.

Cardiff's Director of Rugby, Phil Davies, has named a team that features all the points-scorers from the Munster game. Former Leinster academy member Robin Copeland scored the winning try that night and he has had a fine season for Cardiff. He is named at number eight with Rory Watts-Jones and Michael Paterson alongside him in the backrow. 19-year-old Rhys Patchell kicked the points and was very impressive all round and he's been drafted in from the Wales Under-20s squad to partner Lewis Jones at half-back. Gavin Evans and Dafydd Hewitt are an experienced centre paring while young Harry Robinson and Owen Williams (the other try-scorer against Munster) provide pace on the wing. Jason Tovey, who's normally a full-back completes the backline. They've named a pretty young front five with locks James Down and Macauley Cook and front rows Sam Hobbs and Rhys Williams, so they'll be glad to have the experience of veteran prop Taufa'ao Filise to lean on.

For Leinster coach Joe Schmidt it's been an awkward match to build up to. Obviously the ten players in the Ireland match squad are gone but he's also missing several players who've been training with the squad all week. So he's also named a team with a mix of youth and experience. Jack McGrath makes his seventh start for Leinster after his good form recently as captain of the 'A' team. He's partnered in the front row by Aaron Dundon and Michael Bent. Leo Cullen captains the team from the second row, the only survivor of the team that started against Exeter, and he partners Tom Denton who'll be looking to make an impact after a slow start to his Leinster career. Dominic Ryan will be hoping for an injury free run over the next few weeks to remind the Irish rugby public of what he can do and he plays at blindside with Shane Jennings at openside and Jordi Murphy getting a third start of the season at number eight.

In the backs Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan are the half-backs and Andrew Goodman and Brendan Macken make up a heavy-weight midfield. In the back three it's good to see academy winger Darren Hudson get a second senior start after an injury-disrupted season. Dave Kearney is fit enough to be named at full-back and the Munster-bound Andrew Conway edges out the Connacht-bound Fionn Carr for the final slot in the back three.

There's no doubt that both teams are considerably under-strength and it will be a toss-up as to which team comes through to win. Wet weather is forecast so it's unlikely to be a classic, but you hope Leinster have the edge at half-back to sneak what would be an invaluable win.

Team Lineups

Cardiff Blues

Leinster Rugby
Teams Jason Tovey 15 Dave Kearney
Owen Williams 14 Andrew Conway
Gavin Evans (C) 13 Brendan Macken
Dafydd Hewitt12 Andrew Goodman
Harry Robinson 11 Darren Hudson
Rhys Patchell 10 Ian Madigan
Lewis Jones 9 Isaac Boss

Sam Hobbs 1 Jack McGrath
Rhys Williams 2 Aaron Dundon
Taufa'ao Filise 3 Michael Bent
Macauley Cook 4 Leo Cullen (C)
James Down 5 Tom Denton
Michael Paterson 6 Domimic Ryan
Rory Watts-Jones 7 Shane Jennings
Robin Copeland 8 Jordi Murphy

Replacements Marc Breeze 16 Tom Sexton
Nathan Trevett 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Scott Andrews 18 Jamie Hagan
Luke Hamilton 19 Ben Marshall
Josh Navidi 20 Rhys Ruddock
Alex Walker 21 John Cooney
Ceri Sweeney 22 Noel Reid
Richard Smith 23 Fionn Carr

Not Considered
due to Injury

Andi Kyriacou,
Dan Fish,
Tom James,
Jake Copper,
Tom Davies

Richardt Strauss,
Damien Browne,
Quinn Roux,
Colm O'Shea,
Adam Byrne,
Dan Leavy,
Edward Byrne,
Brian Byrne,
Eoin O'Malley
Officials Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Sean Brickell, Martyn Lewis (both WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-02-15