Guinness Pro14 secured. There is no resting on any laurels from a Leinster Rugby perspective as they lock horns with Saracens at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow afternoon. The team sheets are in and it makes for interesting reading. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on both teams.
Leinster Rugby have shown Saracens massive respect in this team selection. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have made key changes in the front five. Ronan Kelleher has paid the price for a misfiring lineout unit and is dropped to the bench. Enter Sean Cronin for a start but question marks aplenty on the line out now given Cronin’s lack of game time since the league resumption. James Tracy must be gutted.
For Kelleher, it is a disappointment and to sugar coat any other way would be ignoring the fact that his line out throwing is now under the microscope. Opposition teams have sensed it. Saracens will target the line out with or without Kelleher but it does raise questions for national head coach Andy Farrell on the merits of including the prospect in a starting test match lineup.
This Cronin selection means that Devin Toner is selected to safe the day when it comes to line out time. Cronin and Toner line out relationship is pretty solid but no Scott Fardy in the matchday squad means that Ryan and Baird are going to have to run the line out calls at a certain point to close out the contest. I cannot stress how key this set piece is going to be tomorrow for Leinster Rugby.
The seven jersey was also another key selection call. Will Connors has impressed but this is a serious step up in terms of physicality and experience with Wray, Rhodes and Vunipola in opposition. Wray is so destructive in the breakdown and clear out work. Josh van der Flier is on the bench but this is a 50/50 call for me.
Josh van der Flier did such a magnificent job last week of unsettling Billy Burns in the Guinness Pro14 final. Burns was rattled early doors so much so that his kicking game from hand disintegrated and long range penalty kick efforts were turned down. It culminated in Burns looking to pass out down the line early in the second half as fast as possible for fear of van der Flier and Henshaw intercepted for the try. Mission accomplished. I thought van der Flier would deploy similar tactics against Alex Goode?
You can tell that I am a big fan of Josh van der Flier. This selection is obviously based on player form but to omit the player is a big call here. Adjustments midgame may not work in the back row. Saracens look to have stolen a march on Leinster Rugby with these back row selections changes
The rest of the Leinster Rugby side is along familiar lines. McGrath and Sexton form the half-back partnership. They will be tested from minute one as Wray and Rhodes will look to put pressure in their defensive line speed and also pick the opportunity to slow ruck ball when given the opportunity. Billy Vunipola will look to target Sexton on every ball carry.
The Leinster Rugby back three will be tested under the high ball and this time it will come from various Saracens players. Wigglesworth, Goode, Daly all have an excellent kicking game and the chief target will be full back Jordan Larmour. Where Munster Rugby failed, Saracens precision won’t.
The opening kicking exchanges could indicate how this game plan evolves. Saracens will prey on any weakness shown by Leinster Rugby early. Lowe and Keenan are going to have to deal with their aerial duties which will expose Larmour even more. Lowe’s defensive reads will be tested.
The more this fixture has loomed, the more I sense that Saracens will pose Leinster Rugby issues and problems which no Guinness Pro14 side has been capable of raising. It is so delicately poised.
Saracens are such a dangerous side in this fixture. Leinster Rugby and their unbeaten Guinness Pro14 record means that they are warm favorites to advance to the semi-finals but Saracens despite their personnel issues and relegation bring a world class pack which demands respect which could turn over any opponent.
Owen Farrell is suspended but with Alex Goode at ten, they have a player who will provide game management and picks his moment to launch the ever reliable Brad Barritt in the three quarters. The onus is for Leinster Rugby to execute an expansive game plan to take the Saracens pack threat out of the equation; risky game plan if it misfires.
The accuracy and precision from Leinster Rugby needs to be completely on point tomorrow. Saracens would love nothing more than to come to Dublin and burst the Leinster Rugby unbeaten record streak and another fixture ahead from retaining their European Cup crown.
The Saracens pack is awesome.
1 Mako Vunipola
2 Jamie George
3 Vincent Koch
4 Maro Itoje
5 Tim Swinson
6 Mike Rhodes
7 Jackson Wray
8 Billy Vunipola
A few weeks back, I was thinking Leinster Rugby with plenty to spare but I am getting a nervy vibe for them tomorrow. Saracens will come to the party, they have earmarked this game and I think Saracens will run Leinster Rugby incredibly close which begs the question how battle hardened are Leinster Rugby coming down the stretch and potentially behind. Questions to be answered tomorrow!
Verdict: I still think Leinster Rugby have the edge in the bench to win but this will be close and could provide plenty of ammunition for either ASM Clermont or Racing 92 to exploit in the last four. The French officiating crew will be an interesting watch too with both teams going at it from minute one. Andrew Brace ruck time officiating will be in stark contrast to the French officiating crew on display tomorrow.