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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 28 February, 2020

Bath's thrilling backline a threat but Leinster's forward power to prevail

Matt O’Connor will have what looks like his strongest XV of the season out at the Aviva Stadium this afternoon.

Leinster v Bath, Champions Cup quarter-final, Aviva Stadium

Kick-off 15.15, BT Sport 1

Luke Fitzgerald Luke Fitzgerald at Leinster's captain's run in the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

WATCHING ON AS Wigan Warriors beat St. Helen’s in yesterday’s excellent Super League contest, we couldn’t help but think of Leinster and Bath.

The blitzing defensive plays Leinster coach Matt O’Connor favours, the heavy contacts the Australian likes to see from his players, the deep, pull-back screen passes Bath regularly use in phase play; these are all familiar aspects of these Champions Cup contenders’ approaches.

And why wouldn’t they be, given that both O’Connor and Bath boss Mike Ford both have rugby league backgrounds.

The latter was born and bred in the 13-man code, representing Great Britain twice before moving into coaching in league too. Union eventually stole him across when Ireland came calling for a defence coach in 2002.

O’Connor is the son of a rugby league professional, playing the code himself briefly when he joined Paris Saint-Germain. Not quite the same depth of league development, but O’Connor’s ideas are tinged by those experiences nonetheless.

Just last month Ford called on his league contacts, bringing Bath for two days of training against Wigan Warriors. His Bath team today features former St. Helen’s man Eastmond, while Ford’s son George was brought up as a league player.

“If we can tackle them six times, we’ll be fine!” joked Leinster head coach O’Connor this week. “Yeah, they’ve got a couple of rugby league guys there and I know Mike [Ford] quite well.”

Matt O'Connor This is a momentous game for Matt O'Connor. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

This Champions Cup quarter-final pits a coach who has yet to fully convince his team’s supporters of his worth against one who is enjoying an ever-improving reputation in charge of a club that will continue to grow and grow.

Leinster’s recent run of one win in six Pro12 games coming into this European tie is cause for concern, and defeat at home this afternoon would be disastrous for O’Connor’s standing with the Leinster faithful.

Returning internationals like Sean O’Brien, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, Rob Kearney, Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Luke Fitzgerald [the last two played off the bench last weekend] bring with them Six Nations-winning form and confidence.

How much does that count for? Against this impressive Bath unit?

Currently third in the Premiership and having emerged top of a difficult European group that also included Toulouse, Glasgow and Montpellier, Ford’s men are at the opposite end of the form spectrum.

O’Connor referred to a “very, very dangerous backline” when previewing Bath earlier this week, and the qualities of the likes of Anthony Watson, Jonathan Joseph, Matt Banahan, Ford and Eastmond have been well flagged.

Man-for-man and in terms of performances this season, Bath’s backline looks superior to Leinster’s. What of the packs?

Leinster forwards coach Leo Cullen spoke of one of the finest set-piece in Europe when analysing Bath, and the memory of their scrum obliteration of Glasgow Warriors in the pool stages remains strong.

BathÕs George Ford Out-half George Ford will be a major threat to Leinster's defence. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

The losses of Dave Wilson and Henry Thomas at tighthead deprives Ford’s men of real strength, however, and one senses that the likes of Sean O’Brien, Toner, Ross, Healy and Jamie Heaslip may prove to be the difference.

Leinster have been here a fair few times before, and with what looks like their strongest XV of the season so far, they should have enough to get past the obvious lack of form they bring into this demanding fixture.

Bath are under less pressure, and have served fair warning of their ability to upset the odds with their complete attacking approach. There is a degree of a clash of styles in this meeting, so how does O’Connor think it will look?

“Certainly we aim to start a bit more structured and keep it as an arm wrestle and make sure we get dominance in the right areas in the key moments and build a performance around that, but it is hard to say.

“There are a lot of talented footballers on the field. You would like to be pretty optimistic that there will be a pretty special occasion if the weather is right.”

The winner of this one looks likely to be heading for Marseille to take on Toulon later this month. It doesn’t get easier, but first things first for O’Connor’s Leinster.

Prediction: Leinster 28 – 22 Bath


15. Rob Kearney
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Ben Te’o
12. Ian Madigan
11. Luke Fitzgerald
10. Jimmy Gopperth
9. Isaac Boss

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Mike Ross
4. Devin Toner
5. Mike McCarthy
6. Jordi Murphy
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip (captain)


16. Richardt Strauss
17. Jack McGrath
18. Marty Moore
19. Tom Denton
20. Dominic Ryan
21. Eoin Reddan
22. Gordon D’Arcy
23. Zane Kirchner


15. Anthony Watson
14. Horacio Agulla
13. Jonathan Joseph
12. Kyle Eastmond
11. Matt Banahan
10. George Ford
9. Micky Young

1. Paul James
2. Rob Webber
3. Kane Palma-Newport
4. Stuart Hooper (captain)
5. Dave Attwood
6. Carl Fearns
7. Francois Louw
8. Leroy Houston


16. Ross Batty
17. Nick Auterac
18 Max Lahiff
19. Matt Garvey
20. Alafoti Faosiliva
21. Peter Stringer
22. Sam Burgess
23. Tom Homer

Referee: Jerome Garces [France].

- First published at 07.00.

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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