NINE OF THE Northampton players that led Leinster 22-6 at half-time of the 2011 Heineken Cup final are in Saints squad today.
Leinster retain 13 of the squad that turned a 16-point deficit into an 11-point win at the Millennium Stadium. Crucially, however, creative sparks Isa Nacewa and Jonathan Sexton have moved on. The out-half, who finds himself on the Racing Métro bench this weekend, contributed 28 points and a rousing team talk before the second half began.
Matt O’Connor has opted for Ian Madigan’s prodigious talents in the 10 jersey and Rob Kearney, who missed the 2011 final with injury, is not too shabby a replacement for the retired Nacewa at fullback. There have been many personnel changes at Northampton since they caved in at Cardiff [including departures of James Downey and Roger Wilson] but injury and suspension has left them in a weakened state.
Ben Foden, Alex Corbisiero and Kahn Fotuali’i are all missing with knocks while George Pisi has been left to ruminate on his suspension-enticing dump tackle on Tommy Bowe last month.
The injured Ben Foden misses out on Saints’ revenge mission this evening. INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Flanker Calum Clark, who starts on the bench, declared this week that Saints’ fringe players would be up for the battle after two hard-fought LV Cup games but the Heineken Cup is about six levels up from that Anglo-Welsh kickabout.
The loss of Corbisiero shades that of scrum-half Fotuali’i as the prop took his England and Lions form into the Premiership season. The Saints front row now features Alex Waller, Wallabies tighthead Salesi Ma’afu and Marmite-esque hooker Dylan Hartley. Leinster should hold a slight edge here but Mike Ross’ confidence may still be brittle after a sobering November Series.
The Saints backline features a host of solid citizens — Luther Burrell earned an England call-up last month — but George North is the man Leinster will have spent most of their time working out defensive patterns for. The Welsh winger has saved his best performances for his country this season but this break [go to 2:09 in the video] was the move that convinced most Saints fans of his electrifying abilities. James Wilson and Dom Waldouck will float in his vicinity and look to exploit similar breaks.
YouTube credit: Premiership Rugby
Leinster coach Matt O’Connor goes with five players in his backline that added to their international reputations against New Zealand. Gordon D’Arcy admitted after the agonising loss to the All Blacks that, in all likelihood, he would not face that team again. The inside centre has entered his career endgame but, once again, proved his worth in the white heat of battle. D’Arcy and O’Driscoll act as loose forwards, when required, in cup ties and will do so again today.
The English side are stronger in the second row and Courtney Lawes has the ability, pace and drive to influence proceedings all over the park. Samu Manoa is a wrecking ball for Saints and his scraps with Mike McCarthy over the coming weeks may earn a place in Heineken Cup folklore.
Tom Wood is the marquee name of the Saints back-row but Phil Dowson has prospered against Leinster in the past and Sam Dickinson is holding his own after a recent step up from Championship rugby. The visitors have kept faith in Rhys Ruddock at blindside and, not for the first time, will ask Jamie Heaslip to climb into rucks in order to free up Sean O’Brien to pick up where he left off in Europe.
The fatal flaw in Northampton’s defeat to Leinster in 2011 was allowing Sexton in for an early score and the inability to tag on points to their first-half haul. Leinster will look to keep the scoring opportunities at a minimum for a home team on a seven-game winning streak before deploying a strong bench. If it is a one-score game at the break, the three-time champions will be confident of taking the bulk of the points back to Dublin.
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