Le­in­ster will ex­pect noth­ing less than bonus point win

Big guns re­turn for the cham­pi­ons as they look to keep in touch with Toulouse

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gavin Cum­miskey

The sur­geon’s scalpel re­turns from his brief mid-sea­son so­journ in re­newed form: the World Player of the Year.

Ex­pect the usual pre­ci­sion by Johnny Sex­ton.

Le­in­ster soundly beat­ing Bath at The Rec is es­sen­tial and ex­pected in equal mea­sure. Such logic stems from the in­jury list out­go­ing di­rec­tor of rugby Todd Black­ad­der must swal­low.

Squint to see dimmed lights: no fum­bling Fred­die Burns or Rhys Pri­est­land so James Wil­son, a 35-year-old Kiwi jour­ney­man, is tasked with pick­ing apart the Euro­pean cham­pi­ons. Toby Fale­tau and Zach Mercer are stripped from the back­row, which does in­clude world-renowned poach­ers in Sam Un­der­hill and Spring­bok Fran­cois Louw, while the back­line has been se­verely weak­ened by the un­avail­abil­ity of Jonathan Joseph and An­thony Wat­son.

Names of wounded stars run deep in English rugby. It wouldn’t take a ge­nius to re­alise the Gal­lagher Premier­ship is do­ing un­told dam­age to its brand, never mind the frac­tur­ing of its play­ers. Rel­e­ga­tion fears guar­an­tee too many vi­tal games, too many min­utes in the trenches. Mad­ness. Of course, Bath will of­fer hardy re­sis­tance or their sup­port­ers will go bal­lis­tic; atone­ment is de­manded af­ter last week’s aw­ful show­ing in a 7-7 tie with lowly Sale.

At­tack­ing fe­roc­ity

Los­ing both out­halves along with the at­tack­ing fe­roc­ity of two Lions, Wat­son and Joseph, doesn’t make them a blunt force as Semesa Roko­duguni and Joe Cokanasiga can tear any de­fence asun­der if af­forded op­por­tu­nity (both Fi­jian wingers are English qual­i­fied and capped).

That noted, Jamie Roberts will come stomp­ing through mid­field.

Bath do not look ca­pa­ble of trou­bling Le­in­ster over 80 min­utes. Gir­van Dempsey, their at­tack coach since mov­ing his fam­ily from Dublin last sum­mer, spoke this week about build­ing a self-suf­fi­cient or­gan­i­sa­tion com­pa­ra­ble to his boy­hood team. That idea seems far-fetched. Fac­tor in the clin­i­cal, ruth­less na­ture of this Le­in­ster XV and a bonus point is promised be­fore the hour mark.

Take the Un­der­hill threat. This bril­liant, if in­jury prone, English open­side hounded New Zealand in Novem­ber. He will be tar­geted and re­moved from the break­down in the same fash­ion that deeply frus­trated Tadhg Beirne when he wore Scar­lets red last sea­son.

The Le­in­ster back­row con­firms as much.

Leo Cullen has re­fused to re­ward any re­cent per­for­mances. De­spite the un­der­stud­ies amass­ing four bonus point vic­to­ries while the in­ter­na­tion­als were break­ing the All Blacks re­solve, no­body sur­vives.

Even the bench is stacked with re­li­ables like Rory O’Lough­lin.

Cullen re­calls Dan Leavy, at num­ber eight, per­haps to coun­ter­act the dou­ble open­side threat of Bath, de­spite the grow­ing pres­ence of Cae­lan Doris, while Jack Co­nan re­turns but only to the bench as Rhys Rud­dock and Josh van der Flier com­mand the flanker slots.

Noel Reid is an in­ter­est­ing choice as cover for Rob­bie Hen­shaw. The form se­lec­tion would have be­longed to Conor O’Brien but the 22 year old is an­other forced to bide his time de­spite pow­er­ful show­ings in the Guin­ness Pro 14.

Ex­clu­sion

This is a huge mo­ment in Reid’s hereto­fore un­ful­filled ca­reer. Roberts will come for him and Sex­ton.

It’s im­pos­si­ble to la­bel this as Le­in­ster’s best XV be­cause Scott Fardy is ab­sent. The Wal­laby – and they will surely come call­ing be­fore next year’s World Cup – is left out of the squad en­tirely de­spite his out­stand­ing dis­plays in re­cent weeks, mas­querad­ing at sec­ond row while do­ing the dev­il­ish chores of a blind­side.

Fardy’s ex­clu­sion is a needs-must sce­nario as Jami­son Gibson-Park pro­vides scrumhalf cover for Luke McGrath be­cause the Mun­ster-bound Nick McCarthy is in­jured. James Lowe’s in­clu­sion makes it two Aus­tralian/New Zealan­ders in the group, with a third not per­mit­ted un­der Euro­pean rules. Gibson-Park is Ir­ish qual­i­fied next sea­son.

The re­turn of Devin Toner and James Ryan can hardly be seen as a drop in stan­dards af­ter the Ir­ish pair man-han­dled the gold stan­dard lock­ing part­ner­ship of Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock three weeks ago.

That gap be­tween games is the real test for Le­in­ster. This gang has not played to­gether, cer­tainly not in blue, since Oc­to­ber but this is the new way; Sex­ton, Garry Rin­grose, Tadhg Fur­long

and the other world beat­ers are only rolled out for sea­son-defin­ing matches.

This rep­re­sents just that be­cause de­feat to Toulouse, by both sides in Oc­to­ber, makes Cham­pi­ons Cup progress very dif­fi­cult for the loser.

A Le­in­ster vic­tory would prob­a­bly ruin any hope of a com­pet­i­tive re­turn leg at the Aviva next week as Bath would surely re­fo­cus on avoid­ing rel­e­ga­tion trou­ble from the Premier­ship. They have Christ­mas games against Wasps and Le­ices­ter to worry about.

Only the ex­pected wind and rain can deny a bonus point vic­tory.

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