Leinster open their European campaign for the season somewhat under the radar, as they take on Wasps in the RDS today. Leo Cullen has enjoyed a solid start if nothing else to his tenure in Dublin 4, but with the international stars fully settled back with the province, they will be eager to get off in Europe with the best possible result.
The big news in last week’s victory over the Scarlets was the return of Jonathan Sexton. The Ireland fly-half has returned from his exodus at Racing Metro. Immediately the RDS crowd saw what they were missing these past few seasons. The famous wrap around was back, bamboozling the opposition. There was a sense that the missing piece to the jigsaw was found. Sexton possesses an x-factor which Jimmy Gopperth simply did not have.
The three time Heineken Cup champions are drawn in a tricky pool, but if it is any consolation, the fixture list has been kind. Tomorrow, they open their campaign against Wasps at home. The Coventry side are perceived to be the weakest team in Pool 5, and if the Irish side are to have any hope of progressing, they need to win, with a bonus point their goal.
Next week is Bath away, and this will be a real litmus test. The two sides are well acquainted, with Leinster edging last season’s quarter-final at the Aviva. However, George Ford and Co. are gelling as a unit, and showed last week that they mean business by hammering London Irish away. If Cullen’s side can find a win here, then a two match showdown with champions Toulon seems that bit less daunting.
Nonetheless, the French giants should not be feared. They are off the pace in the Top 14, and while their returning World Cup stars add another layer, they are all pushing on. Toulon are littered with big names, but these are well known for having dominated the game for the last 10 years. Many of the top players are on the wrong side of 30, and may tire in the last 20 minutes against a top side in Europe.
The task ahead of Leinster is not insurmountable, but they must focus on their own strengths. In Mike Ross and Cian Healy, they possess possibly the best club scrummaging unit in the continent. This is backed up by a back row of international quality, while the 9/10 axis is not too bad either. Should the forwards provide a breakdown platform where Sexton can set the backline alight with front foot possession, oppositions will struggle
The Irish provinces have lost ground on their English and French counterparts since the conception of the Champions Cup. While Leinster have been dealt a tricky group this year, it is worth reminding themselves that they have won three European cups in the last seven years. They have the number of Wasps and Bath, while Toulon are there for the taking, particularly in the Aviva Stadium.
Belief is the key, and Leo Cullen’s side may raise a few eyebrows in the coming months.