|SEE TWEET BELOW FOR LATE CHANGES|
It was such a simpler time back on December 13 when I was scribbling my writeup for Leinster’s win over Bath at the Aviva Stadium.
Back in those days, all I had to worry about was our points difference on the Pool A table and how it could affect our chances of getting a top 2 finish and the easier path through the knockout stages that came with it.
Then along came the COVID train, not only knocking out our next four fixtures and even making a stop here in Harpin Manor, but also a controversial decision by the EPCR slapped Leinster with a 28-0 defeat in a pool where we only get to play four matches so as you can probably understand, the priorities have shifted quite a bit over the past month.
For me anyway the bulk of the significance of Sunday’s lunchtime date at the RDS is that the boys in blue are playing any rugby at all, and as I type I’m still not 100% convinced that itself is actually certain (I’m practically logging on to Twitter after each paragraph to make sure).
One thing is for sure - the matchday squad named by Leo Cullen at 12pm on Friday made me feel a lot better about things. No offence to those on the teamsheet ahead of the trip to France but this selection looks to be very close to our best available which is not a bad state of affairs when your goal is to get back to the required standards as quickly as possible.
Obviously there is a lot of Six Nations prep included here, but hey if Leinster can reap the benefit then more’s the better. And nothing smacks of this more than the front and back row trios, both of which could well be Andy Farrell’s go to choices in a few weeks.
In the second row James Ryan takes the armband and leadership will be key if we hope to surpass that 28 point deficit as the bookies expect us to.
(UPDATE 12:30pm SUNDAY : I was so preoccupied with worrying the match wouldn't actually happen I forgot about the old-fashioned late changes!!!! This would have been a good test for James' leadership but we must plough on. Big day needed from Josh we'll need beef in the pack from the off - our goal remains the same.)
🚨 | Squad update@JamesRyan126 has been ruled out after picking up a minor muscle issue in yesterday's captain's run, Josh Murphy will take his place in the lineup. 💪— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 16, 2022
Garry Ringrose will now captain the side. ©#LEIvMHR #HeinekenChampionsCup pic.twitter.com/H5WLwl1PJm
He is joined by Ross Molony who could definitely do with a strong European performance to underline a string of fine outings in the URC this season.
When it comes to the backs, obviously it is great to see Johnny Sexton back ready to play but for this match the hope will be that by the time he is called upon we have matters in hand, which puts a lot of focus on how Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne can set the tempo.
Another who will be looking to catch the eye on the European stage is Ciarán Frawley, who lines out in the centre alongside Garry Ringrose which gives us a host of creative options through the backs so clearly the hope will be that they can hit the ground running.
It’s quite a decent bench too even without Sexton. With every point counting it will definitely be good to introduce the likes of Sheehan, Healy, Ruddock and Lowe in the closing stages especially if we are looking to pad the scoreline at that stage.
Of course our opponents will be keen to make sure there’s no winning scoreline for us to pad, although having followed the Top14’s outfit closely this season this looks like a selection that shows they are not really prioritizing this competition, with a few Cvoid cases thrown in for good measure.
The name that hops off their team sheet the most is that of Zach Mercer and even that is on the bench so it’s likely their intention is to give him game time ahead of their next batch of domestic matches.
No doubt the likes of Guirardo will still be keen to motivate their starting XV to get off to a good start at the very least so like I say it’s crucial that we impose ourselves early and definitely avoid getting on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes, who was slated to ref the cancelled fixture.
With this effectively another season opener for us and no form to go on, I can only make a prediction based on reputation and much like the match against Bath it won’t be near enough for us to merely win, a full 80 minute display will be required if we are to have a hope of at least carving out a decent pool finish.
Normally I hate saying we’re going to win a match by 30 points or more but with so much at stake I feel the lads have to feel that kind of pressure to produce the goods so I’m going to back us to beat the bookies’ spread and go for around 33-35. It won’t be easy that’s for sure but it’s definitely the kind of statement we need to make if we have aspirations on getting that fifth star.
Sadly while my Covid isolation spell is over and the symptoms more or less gone, I have chosen not to risk heading to the RDS on Sunday so if you’re one of the lucky ones who gets to go, be sure and give a shout out to the boys for me. I’ll be following the proceedings from home on the twitter machine and I’ll look forward to reading your full-time thoughts over on the Facebook page as normal.
Here’s to a successful return to Leinster Rugby this weekend! JLP