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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021
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Saints alive now but Leinster will kill their European hopes by 3pm

Leo Cullen’s side will see off their English challengers today to move a step closer to the Champions Cup quarters.

Harry Byrne makes his first European start.
Harry Byrne makes his first European start.
Image: Robbie Stephenson/INPHO

THE YEARS CHANGE, the script doesn’t. Season after season, Leo Cullen drops in a European debutant or two but after all the fuss that stemmed from the five greenhorns he selected against Bath back in January 2016, we’ve almost reached the stage where we don’t even notice the new guys come along.

Today it is the turn of Harry Byrne and Ryan Baird to have their first European starts (1pm, Virgin Media, Channel 4, BT Sport) but it doesn’t seem that long ago that Ross Byrne was picked for his first Champions Cup game. Or James Ryan for that matter – between them second row pairing Ryan and Baird have a combined age of 45; last weekend Devin Toner and Scott Fardy shared 70 birthday candles between them the last time someone baked them a cake.

This shift from experience to youth has happened right in front of us and it’s almost as if we have ceased to notice. Since Cullen came in to replace Matt Connor, five years ago, he has handed out European debuts to all bar four of today’s starting XV and three quarters of the replacements as well.

Perceptions are funny, though. It was Northampton’s selection which caused the bigger stir yesterday, Chris Boyd making eight changes to their side after last weekend’s 16-12 defeat to Bordeaux-Begles. There is no Courtney Lawes or Dan Biggar – the latter is injured – but there are six internationals in their starting line-up, a two-time World Cup winner (Owen Franks) on the bench.

“Don’t tell me that’s a scratch academy team Northampton are sending over,” said Cullen yesterday. “That’s a strong team and it’s important for our guys to understand who we’re up against, which are bloody good players.”

Leinster’s lot don’t look too shabby, either. Even without Johnny Sexton, Tadgh Furlong, Toner, Fardy, Max Deegan, Will Connors, Jordan Larmour, Jack Conan, look at what they have – Dan Leavy on the bench, a back-row trio of Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris, a front row of Cian Healy, Ronan Kelleher and Andrew Porter.

Add in Ryan and Baird’s names and you see where we’re going with this thought. It’s an athletic, powerful pack, ready to cause damage, ready to see if Harry is the better of the two Byrne brothers, which many suspect he is.

“I’ve a younger brother as well,” Cullen said of his decision to start 21-year-old Harry over 25-year-old sibling, Ross.

“He never actually took my spot thankfully so I never got to experience what that was like.

“I’d imagine it’s an unusual dynamic but hopefully the older siblings are happy for their younger ones.”

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We’ll see around the 65th minute mark when Ross comes on as a replacement for his kid brother – and by that stage, you’d imagine Leinster will be dictating the terms and conditions of this game, knowing the prize ahead.

Pool A, by far the easier of the two, has opened up for them. First place is theirs now to grab, and the reward for that is (providing they see off their quarter-final opponents) a semi-final in the Aviva. You can’t see Northampton, even with George Furbank intriguingly selected at 10, disrupting those plans. Expect a bonus point win today. “With four games, they’re not far off knockout games,” Cullen said. This then is the Saints’ final chance. They won’t take it.

Leinster Rugby (caps in brackets):

15. Jimmy O’Brien (25)
14. Hugo Keenan (21)
13. Garry Ringrose (78)
12. Robbie Henshaw (50)
11. Dave Kearney (155)
10. Harry Byrne (17)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (96)
1. Cian Healy (223)
2. Rónan Kelleher (17)
3. Andrew Porter (68)
4. Ryan Baird (15)
5. James Ryan (42)
6. Rhys Ruddock (181) CAPTAIN
7. Josh van der Flier (86)
8. Caelan Doris (35)

 Replacements:

16. James Tracy (117)
17. Peter Dooley (82)
18. Michael Bent (148)
19. Ross Molony (102)
20. Josh Murphy (38)
21. Luke McGrath (135)
22. Ross Byrne (92)
23. Dan Leavy (69)

Northampton Saints

T Collins; R Olowofela, F Dingwall, R Hutchinson, T Naiyaravoro; G Furbank, T James; A Waller, S Matavesi, P Hill; A Moon, A Ratuniyarawa; N Isiekwe, T Wood, S Adendorff. Replacements: M Haywood, F van Wyk, O Franks, A Coles, T Harrison, H Taylor, P Francis, M Proctor.

Referee: Pierre Brousset (France)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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