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Dublin: 7°C Thursday 24 September 2020

Leinster ready to adapt to whatever Bath and the weather throws at them

The defending champions need a win at the Aviva Stadium tonight to keep pace with Pool 1 leaders Toulouse.

BACK TO FORTRESS Aviva, and back to the well for Leinster for what is another crunch European tie, as Leo Cullen’s defending champions bid to move up another gear in their quest to advance through to the quarter-finals.

The province have yet to fully hit their straps this term, but last week’s victory at the Rec — as frustrating as the substandard performance was — has engendered further momentum ahead of this evening’s renewal of battle lines with Bath [KO 5.30pm, BT Sport].

Johnny Sexton Johnny Sexton is fit to start for Leinster. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Sitting second behind Toulouse in Pool 1 at the halfway juncture of the pool stages, a bonus-point win tonight will be on Cullen’s Christmas wishlist as Leinster strive to keep pace with the Top 14 outfit ahead of a potential group-defining showdown at the RDS in January.

That’s further down the line, for now Cullen’s charges are fully focused on the task in hand.

While there was certain satisfaction in coming away from Somerset with an away victory, the imperfections of last weekend has rankled with Leinster’s players and management this week, with Tadhg Furlong evening admitting a win felt like a defeat.

It is, of course, a barometer of their consistent excellence over the last 18 months that a European victory on the road is viewed in this light, but also parsed through the knowledge that a Bath side showing just two changes will arrive in Dublin intent on getting the result they felt their own performance warranted last week.

Leinster are also wary of getting caught in the second leg of these pivotal December back-to-backs, with Cullen yesterday referring to the defeat to Northampton Saints at the Aviva a couple of seasons ago, or even the way in which they struggled to put Exeter Chiefs away 12 months ago.

The weather forecast — biblical rain is set for Dublin today — could also be a leveller, drawing the sides into a reprise of their arm-wrestle, another variable which will do little to ease Cullen’s concerns, particularly after the manner in which Bath won the battle of the breakdown and physical confrontations seven days ago.

In response, Jack Conan has been restored to the number eight jersey, with Dan Leavy shifting to blindside flanker, Josh van der Flier retaining his place at openside and Rhys Ruddock dropping down to the bench.

Rectifying those issues was the obvious starting point for Cullen and Stuart Lancaster this week, and they’ll need to nullify the threat and poaching skills of Bath’s potent duo Sam Underhill and Francois Louw to ensure quick and clean ball for Luke McGrath and Johnny Sexton, who has shaken off a calf injury to captain the hosts.

“We’re blessed that we have the quality in the back row,” Cullen said. “The four guys [Leavy, Ruddock, JVDF, Conan] have been very competitive so there’s not much in the selections there.

Jack Conan Jack Conan starts at number eight. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Jack is such a dynamic ball carrier. He came off a knock in the USA game and we weren’t sure how that would settle down. He pushed himself hard to get back and he’s a lot more confident this week after the training. Looking forward to seeing him in action.”

Conan’s returning to the starting XV is one of three changes in personnel Cullen has made, with Rob Kearney — who sustained an unspecified knock at the Rec — ruled out through injury, handing Adam Byrne his first European start since Montpellier in October 2017.

It is a big chance for both Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin, who comes in to start alongside Garry Ringrose in place of Noel Reid, after the pair have had endured frustrating injury setbacks in the last two seasons.

“Adam has been going really well,” Cullen continued. “He has had to bide his time, missed out on a couple of very tight selections earlier on in the year. 

“He has gone way and worked hard. He’s looked incredibly sharp in the last couple of games he’s played in and it’s a great opportunity for him to produce out here.

Rory is the very same. Both those guys have gone well during the course of the year. The competition in the squad often drives the performance at the weekend. 

“There’s been some unbelievably close calls in terms of some of the selections along the way. Guys just need to sometimes be patient and get the feedback from coaches, what can they improve upon so when it comes down to the that close call again that they’re the ones that get the nod because we’re just basing it on what we see as coaches in terms of selection.

“We’re full of confidence that both will go well again. If they go well on the big days, it’s another positive dilemma for us as coaches.”

The presence of Ringrose and Sexton on either side of O’Loughlin in the 12 shirt is a big help for the former St Michael’s man, but he has no shortage of big-game experience having slotted in not long into last year’s Pro14 final after Isa Nacewa’s swansong was injury-curtailed. 

The loss of Robbie Henshaw, Sean O’Brien and indeed Kearney is a setback for Leinster at such a pivotal period in the season, but Cullen is keen for his side to develop that ability to adapt, whatever the opposition and weather throws at them.  

“We’re trying to add different strings to the game all the time,” the head coach continued.

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Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at yesterday's press conference. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“We need to understand that sometimes you need to roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done on any given day. It’s not our intention, we go out to play with attacking intent all the time but even in the game last year [Exeter], it was both teams going fully at it. It was an unbelievably physical affair.

“That’s what people want to come and see as well. There weren’t that many tries in the game last year, we scored one and Exeter scored two, but it was a pretty enthralling game. It was a great advert for the game, the way both sets of players went at the game.

“That’s what we expect again, we expect the same from Bath.We know that they are under a different type of pressure for themselves and we saw how that manifested itself in last week’s performance again and we expect something very, very similar.”

Over 43,000 tickets have already been sold for the round four festive clash, and Leinster will hope to lean on that support again as they bid to extend their winning record at the Aviva Stadium to 11 games. 

In addition, the province have won their last 10 European home games, while Bath have not registered a victory in Ireland since their 22-19 win over Leinster during the 2005/06 Heineken Cup pool stages. 

“We love playing here,” Luke McGrath admits. “When you walk out onto that pitch this morning and you see the big stage and knowing that it’s going to be 40-odd thousand might be here tomorrow or whatever.

“But it is exceptionally special in here. The big crowd brings out the best in you, but the main thing is winning in front of that crowd. So, that’s going to be a big challenge for us.” 


15. Jordan Larmour
14. Adam Byrne
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Rory O’Loughlin
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (captain)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Seán Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Dan Leavy
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan. 


16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Rhys Ruddock
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Ross Byrne
23. Noel Reid. 


15. Ruaridh McConnochie
14. Semesa Rokoduguni
13. Jackson Willison
12. Jamie Roberts
11. Cooper Vuna
10. James Wilson
9. Will Chudley

1. Jacques van Rooyen
2. Tom Dunn
3. Henry Thomas
4. Dave Attwood
5. Charlie Ewels (captain)
6. Tom Ellis
7. Sam Underhill
8. Francois Louw.


16. Jack Walker
17. Nathan Catt
18. Max Lahiff
19. Elliott Stooke
20. Matt Garvey
21. Kahn Fotuali’i
22. Alex Davies
23. Darren Atkins. 

Referee: Pascal Gauzère [France].

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Eddie O’Sullivan preview another big weekend of Heineken Cup action and dissect the week’s main talking points.

Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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