THE CALM BEFORE THE storm, now the serious business begins for Leinster. A heavyweight European semi-final is just eight days away, their season — and defence of the double — entering the final straight.
Long assured a home Pro14 semi-final courtesy of their utter dominance of Conference B, this afternoon’s visit of Glasgow Warriors marks the start of a season-defining period for Leo Cullen’s side, even if this fixture has nothing tangible riding on it for the hosts [KO 3pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports].
Rob Kearney and Robbie Henshaw start against Glasgow later. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Firstly, Leinster will want to build winning momentum as a collective heading into their last four showdown with Toulouse, while there will be no shortage of motivation in the home dressing room for those handed starting opportunities here.
Cullen, as he had said he would do, has re-integrated a number of his frontliners as the Leinster head coach looks to strike the right balance between giving those in need of minutes the necessary game time, while ensuring his side are fresh for the knockout games to come.
It has made for an intriguing selection, a blend of youth and experience, with the return to fitness of Devin Toner and Robbie Henshaw a piquant subplot to this afternoon’s contest at the RDS, while Rob Kearney has been given the chance to play his way back into the fullback jersey for Toulouse.
All eyes will be on how Toner and Henshaw come through their respective returns having been sidelined for the last three months, with both players absolutely key for Leinster in the run-in. Their comebacks could not have been better timed, with one eye very much on next weekend.
“They got through all last week as well, which was important,” Cullen said of the returning pair, who have not played since the start of February.
“It’s not like they’re just getting dropped back in for this game in a rushed manner. They got through all last week, did the match-day warm-up last week, and we’ve tried to set them up well so they can come back in and do well.
“Robbie gives us a great physical presence in the midfield of the field on both sides of the ball. He’s growing all the time in terms of his distribution and his ability to ball play as well. The fact he has played 15 in the Six Nations just adds another dimension to his game.
In all, Cullen has made 12 changes in personnel from last weekend’s draw with Benetton, as Joe Tomane, James Tracy and Caelan Doris are the only players to be retained as Leinster again rotate their resources.
Kearney slots in at fullback as Jordan Larmour and Dave Kearney occupy the wings, with Henshaw and Tomane forming the midfield pairing and Ross Byrne shaking off a foot issue to start at out-half. Jamison Gibson-Park is in the nine jersey.
Up front, Ed Byrne will be looking to continue his strong recent form at loosehead, Tracy starts for the second week running and Michael Bent is pitched in at tighthead, with Toner joined by 20-year-old Jack Dunne in the second row.
After making four appearances off the bench this season, it will be Dunne’s first start and another important step in his development, with Mick Kearney now ruled out for the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery earlier in the week.
Joe Tomane retains his place in the starting XV. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
Seán O’Brien is back after a week off and captains Leinster on what could be his final run out at the RDS as his career with the province nears an end, while Josh Murphy will be hoping to take his chance this week after being a late withdrawal through illness last time out. Doris is retained at number eight.
After Max Deegan again impressed against Benetton, O’Brien will want to produce a big performance in the seven jersey later and reinforce his standing as the incumbent openside ahead of Toulouse.
“There is hopefully a lot more to come from me,” the 32-year-old says. “I kinda felt that I was in good form in the last two games. I was busy. I wasn’t going in and out of games probably as much as I have been in a few games this year.
“I felt good afterwards, the body felt good as well. I was pleased with the cameos I had in the last two. This is another opportunity this weekend to get more minutes under the belt.”
O’Brien hopes to get on the ball more and make a bigger impact after putting his recent injury frustrations behind him.
“It’s a difficult one because when you are out with long-term stuff and you’ve had a lot of bits and pieces fixed and whatever else, you just have to be so patient with yourself,” the flanker continued.
“Obviously it’s a natural thing to get frustrated and whatever else. But you just have to trust the process and make sure that you are doing everything you can to leave yourself in the best place possible when you go out onto the field.
“You try and clear your mind as well I suppose and get back to what you do as best you can. That’s what I have tried to do in the last few games and tried not to worry about what’s ahead and just worry about that day and the moments in the game and putting my best foot forward.”
How Leinster would relish O’Brien firing on all cylinders as their season moves up a gear, with the province bidding to get back to winning ways after a draw and defeat in their last two Pro14 outings — it’s four years since they’ve gone three league games without a win.
And with Dave Rennie’s Glasgow arriving in Dublin fully locked and loaded as they look to cement top spot in Conference A, Leinster know this will be no easy ride and gentle warm-up for next weekend.
The Warriors are the best team on current form in the Pro14, garnering 29 out of a possible 30 league points in their last six games, and Rennie has made just two changes to the side that beat Ulster last Friday.
Adam Hastings and Tommy Seymour — try-scorers that night — keep their place, whilst Scott Cummings is named in the second row, meaning Rob Harley shifts to six and Jamie Bhatti starts at loosehead.
Sean O’Brien and Cullen at yesterday’s pre-match press conference. Source: Ramsey Cardy/SPORTSFILE
Huw Jones is among the replacements and could play for the first time since picking up a knee injury whilst playing for Scotland against Ireland in the Six Nations.
“In many ways, it just feels like the season is starting now,” Cullen admits. “We’re waiting to kick into gear. It is a great chance for guys this week with a semi-final next week.
“We are at home, in front of our home supporters at the RDS. We want to put on a big performance because we want the want them to come back.
“We want them to turn up again next week at the Aviva and, hopefully, the people that were there at the quarter-final will turn up for the semi-final. It is just the start now. We’re getting going.
“If we’re not really on our game at this stage of the season, then it just ends like that. In the same situation two years ago, we played a semi-final in Europe and we were beaten.
“A couple of weeks later, we had a semi-final at home in the RDS and we got beaten as well.
“Your season is over and you’re watching the finals, instead of playing in them. It was a lot more enjoyable last year than the previous year. We understand what gets us into that situation. That’s what I mean about, ‘it’s starting now for us.’”
15. Rob Kearney
14. Jordan Larmour
13. Joe Tomane
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park
1. Ed Byrne
2. James Tracy
3. Michael Bent
4. Devin Toner
5. Jack Dunne
6. Josh Murphy
7. Seán O’Brien (captain)
8. Caelan Doris.
16. Seán Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Tadhg Furlong
19. Will Connors
20. Max Deegan
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Adam Byrne.
15. Stuart Hogg
14. Tommy Seymour
13. Kyle Steyn
12. Sam Johnson
11. Niko Matawalu
10. Adam Hastings
9. Ali Price
1. Jamie Bhatti
2. Fraser Brown
3. Zander Fagerson
4. Scott Cummings
5. Jonny Gray
6. Rob Harley
7. Chris Fusaro (captain)
8. Matt Fagerson.
16. Grant Stewart
17. Alex Allan
18. D’Arcy Rae
19. Bruce Flockhart
20. Adam Ashe
21. George Horne
22. Pete Horne
23. Huw Jones.
Referee: Marius Mitrea [FIR].
Gavan Casey and Murray Kinsella are joined by Bernard Jackman to discuss Izzy Folau’s impending sacking by Australia and all the week’s news on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:
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