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Dublin: 10 °C Sunday 17 February, 2019
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Leinster have home quarter-final in their sights on return to Coventry

The defending champions have already qualified for the quarter-finals, but are bidding to secure a home tie in the knockout rounds.

THE TABLES HAVE turned. Leinster, three Januarys after a record European defeat to Wasps at the Ricoh Arena, return to Coventry this afternoon bidding to inject further momentum into their Heineken Champions Cup title defence. 

The eight-try humiliation in round six three seasons ago brought the curtain down on a nightmare European campaign for Leo Cullen’s side, but Leinster have rebuilt and rebounded to become a heavyweight force again.

Adam Byrne celebrates his try with Jordan Larmour and Josh van der Flier Leinster can secure a home quarter-final with a win over Wasps. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“The group was very different three years ago, but I wouldn’t like to see us in a situation where we’re back there again,” Cullen says. 

The eastern province arrive in the English Midlands for this Pool 1 encounter [KO 3.15pm, BT Sport] already assured of a quarter-final berth, but the importance of securing home advantage in the last eight cannot be underestimated. Leinster’s sole focus will be on winning.

Wasps, on the other hand, have been on a downward spiral since that 51-10 victory over Cullen’s men in 2016, failing to get out of their pool last season and are now facing up to the reality of going through this campaign without a win to their name.

Dai Young, the Wasps director of rugby, this week suggested the Premiership’s salary cap is holding the English sides back, thus preventing them from competing with Leinster, who, he made a point of, could beat Toulouse last week without five of their Lions.

Leinster, however, have built their recent success on homegrown foundations, with 19 of Cullen’s matchday 23 today coming through the province’s renowned schools and academy system. Young’s argument carries little substance in this instance.

The visitors are also boosted by the return to fitness of Robbie Henshaw, Devin Toner and Seán O’Brien today, as Cullen makes four changes in personnel from last week’s statement win over Toulouse. Even still, 21 of the squad are senior internationals. 

Henshaw has shown remarkable healing powers again to get back from a hamstring injury ahead of schedule and partners Garry Ringrose in midfield, while Toner has shaken off a rolled ankle to start alongside James Ryan in the second row.

O’Brien, Cullen says, is ‘dying to get back’ after recovering from a broken arm to take his place on the replacements bench, and having been named in Ireland’s Six Nations squad during the week will be looking to make a big impact later in the piece.

The other changes see Jamison Gibson-Park deputise at scrum-half for the luckless Luke McGrath, while Jack McGrath is restored to the starting XV having been left out completely last weekend. Cian Healy drops down to the bench.

It is a measure of the level of Leinster’s performance against Toulouse that Cullen has retained the same back three, with Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney all handed starting opportunities again. 

Ross Byrne, continuing in the number 10 jersey in the absence of Johnny Sexton, will look to channel the disappointment of missing out on Joe Schmidt’s squad into a standout shift in the pivot. Not that he has to prove anything to anyone, but the 23-year-old will be keen to produce another big performance.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at Friday's press conference. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“I think you can react or respond in many different ways, but at least Ross has a big game in front of him this weekend and he’s got something that’s very much in his control so he can go out and control and prepare as well as he possibly can to give him the best chance of playing well, and then he’s ready and available if something happens to someone else,” Cullen said.

“You know, moping around and feeling sorry for yourself is not going to get you very far. He’ll be able to park that disappointment, you see that with our guys all the time.

“So some guys respond incredibly well to the disappointment of missing out so that when their next opportunity comes along, they’re in a better place because they’ve gone away and worked on some of the things that they potentially had to work on.

“They’re hungrier for it when the next opportunity presents itself. They go out and prepare better. So that’s what he can control.”

Byrne pulled the strings superbly at the RDS in round five, as Leinster seized control of Pool 1 to head into the final round of games with a three-point cushion over Toulouse, who host Bath this afternoon.

Not only was the game plan executed to perfection, but Leinster’s relentless work-rate, energy and ball retention ground previously unbeaten Toulouse into the ground, and the challenge now is to replicate that on the road at the Ricoh.

“It is tough winning away,” Cullen continued. “Teams will set up to make life difficult for us, be very physical.

“We just need to make sure that we’re controlling how we’re playing the game, not allowing teams easy access into the game. That’s how we play in terms of playing loose, giving away turnovers, like we did in Toulouse [round two] at the start of the game.

“Or, we are loose with our discipline as we may have been in Thomond Park to the point where we had one red card and two yellow cards in the first 33 minutes.

“That, in terms of some of the recent learnings we have had, comes to how we go about setting up away from home, not trying too hard. Sometimes, it is a case of trying too hard and we’re over-compensating doing things that we wouldn’t normally do.

“It is not the same as being at home because we are in more of a rhythm. It is about trying to get a balance there.”

Wasps, meanwhile, have nothing tangible on the line but Young’s side, without Springboks Willie le Roux and Juan de Jongh and influential openside Thomas Young, will have revenge on their minds in front of their home fans.

Garry Ringrose with Juan de Jongh and Josh Bassett 12/10/2018 Leinster are this season's top points scorers. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Their campaign was derailed before it could get up and running with a heavy defeat in Dublin on the opening weekend, and the hosts will want to end their European season on a high note. 

“We need to make sure we’re somewhere near our best or else it could be a tough day and we certainly don’t want that at home against any opposition,” Young said.

“Leinster are a quality team as we’ve seen out there in Dublin. We were in that game for 45 minutes but then they changed gear and we couldn’t live with that. We certainly don’t want a repeat of that.

“It’s certainly a tough prospect, facing what is effectively the Irish national team just before the Six Nations. They’ll all be vying to impress to earn the green jersey in the coming weeks and they’ll want to do the job for Leinster.”

The defending European champions, who have scored more points (167) and tries (23) than any other side this season, have won each of their last three away games against Premiership opposition.

It’s hard to envisage anything other than a fourth straight victory later. 

Wasps:

15. Rob Miller
14. Josh Bassett 
13. Michele Campagnaro 
12. Gaby Lovobalavu
11. Elliot Daly
10. Lima Sopoaga 
9. Dan Robson

1. Zurabi Zhvania
2. Tom Cruse 
3. Jake Cooper-Woolley
4. Joe Launchbury (captain)
5. Will Rowlands 
6. Brad Shields
7. Nizaam Carr 
8. Nathan Hughes.

Replacements:

16. Ashley Johnson 
17. Ben Harris
18. Will Stuart 
19. Charlie Matthews 
20. Ben Morris
21. Craig Hampson 
22. Billy Searle 
23. Marcus Watson.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Adam Byrne
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Scott Fardy
20. Sean O’Brien
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Noel Reid
23. Rory O’Loughlin.

Referee: Mike Adamson (Scotland).

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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