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Leinster brush aside setback and set sights firmly on Bath challenge at Aviva


Champions Cup Pool A: Leinster v Bath, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 3.15pm – Live on BT Sport

Three positive Covid cases in addition to being the bulk suppliers for Ireland’s autumn series and thus carrying the biggest injury load from that campaign might unhinge some organisations, but such is Leinster’s sureness in what they are doing and strength in depth that it’s unlikely they even batted an eyelid.

Nothing much seems to ruffle the phlegmatic Leo Cullen any way and he readily conceded, without needing to mention them by name, that Leinster’s problems were relatively minor compared to Munster, Cardiff and the Scarlets.

“The disruption has been reasonably minimal. The main thing is from the players’ point of view that they’re okay and we’re getting taken care of. We’re so lucky with the medical set-up we have here. To have the access that we have is pretty phenomenal really so we’re very, very lucky with the three doctors that we have.

“In many of the different aspects of the organisation we feel very, very fortunate and appreciative of the care that we have.”

Of course, the onset of another Champions Cup campaign concentrates their minds like nothing else and, on balance, they are still able to field a side every bit as strong, if not more so, than the one which put Connacht to the sword a week ago.

The Irish starting frontrow in all three November wins – Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong – are restored, as is Ross Molony. Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne also return at halfback while Ciarán Frawley comes in at inside centre.

The four-game sprint to the pool stage finishing line makes a fast start more imperative, especially if a team’s first game is at home.

“It’s pretty essential, isn’t it?” agreed Cullen. “We’ve lost first-round games in the past and progressed, but it makes life a hell of a lot more challenging deeper in the tournament, if you want to go deeper in the tournament.”

Bath have travelled without much confidence and without either Danny Cipriani, forced off a week ago, or Sam Underhill. Stuart Hooper, Bath’s director of rugby, has made four changes from the side beaten 40-19 by Northampton last week, and gives European debuts to six of his starting side, and potentially another five off the bench.

Jamison Gibson-Park returns to the Leinster side for the Champions Cup opener against Bath at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho
Jamison Gibson-Park returns to the Leinster side for the Champions Cup opener against Bath at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Photograph: Ben Brady/Inpho

“It’s definitely an exciting opportunity,” admitted Hooper. “This is a group of young men who are experiencing tough things at the moment, but they are still ambitious and still excited to go and play in one of the best arenas against one of the best teams.”

It’s hard to credit that six seasons ago, Cullen’s first at the helm, Leinster’s only win in the pool stages was at home to Bath when he gave European debuts to Furlong, Molony, Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Luke McGrath and Garry Ringrose.

“They are all still knocking around. Some of them have gone on to do some pretty fantastic things since.”

That also makes him wary of a Bath side who will like the change of tournament and can swing from the hip.

“Again, Bath as an opposition have loads of good young players and they are a potential threat. You look at them in their league position, yeah they have lost all their games, so it’s making sure we understand that we have to get certain bits right ourselves, impose our game and see how Bath deal with that.”

Yet although it wasn’t so long ago when Bruce Craig was the most high-profile of the club owners in England and Mike Ford was in his pomp, Bath, it would appear, have been a club in decline for a few years now. They haven’t reached the knock-out stages of this tournament since losing here a little unluckily in the quarter-finals seven seasons ago and they only qualified through squeezing into eighth place in last season’s Premiership.

Bath have already been cast adrift domestically and in losing all nine of their Premiership games so far this season they have conceded 38 tries.

They lost 40-19 to Northampton last week and the regularity with which they were skinned on the outside was extraordinary. Given Leinster’s proficiency for reaching those edges, the confines of the Aviva Stadium could prove very much to their liking.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Ciarán Frawley, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Ryan Baird; Rhys Ruddock (capt), Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Devin Toner, Max Deegan, Luke McGrath, Jimmy O’Brien, Tommy O’Brien.

BATH: Tom de Glanville; Semesa Rokoduguni, Will Butt, Max Ojomoh, Will Muir; Orlando Bailey, Ben Spencer; Lewis Boyce, Jacques du Toit, Will Stuart; Josh McNally, Charlie Ewels (capt); Tom Ellis, Richard DeCarpentier, Josh Bayliss.

Replacements: Tom Dunn, Arthur Cordwell, D’Arcy Rae, Will Spencer, Joe Simpson, Gabe Hamer-Webb, Tom Prydie.

Referee: Pierre Brousset (France).

Overall head to head: Played 11, Leinster 9 wins, Bath 2 wins.

Betting: 1-200 Leinster, 70-1 Draw, 35-1 Bath. Handicap odds (Bath + 31 pts) 10-11 Leinster, 22-1 Draw, 10-11 Bath.

Forecast: Leinster to win with a bonus point.



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