Brian Barry previews Harlequins v Leinster in the European Champions Cup.
Leinster travel to The Stoop this afternoon to take on Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins, as the two sides share top spot of Pool 2 at 8 points apiece. While both teams have largely struggled this year, they grounded out the wins against Wasps and Castres in the European Champions Cup. However, something must give at 3.15pm today.
Matt O’Connor remains reluctant to select Ian Madigan at out-half for Leinster, despite a string of underwhelming performances from Jimmy Gopperth. Fans are unsure what else Madigan has to do to secure the number ten shirt, having impressed in Ireland’s facile victory over Georgia. But he appears to be a victim of his own versatility; having played at fullback earlier in the season and now is being forced into first centre due to Leinster’s lack of cover in the area.
Meanwhile, Gopperth is simply not the answer to the problem. Leinster have real ambition to win the European Champions Cup, but are unlikely to do so with the Kiwi pulling the strings. Looking back at recent winners of the Heineken Cup, winning out-halves are an elite club: Johnny Wilkinson, Jonny Sexton, David Skrela, and Ronan O’Gara. Leinster cannot win the tournament unless Gopperth ups his game to a whole new level.
The outside backs lack size, and this must be a worry to O’Connor. Up front, the number of genuine ball-carriers will not worry the Harlequins defence. Other than Sean Cronin and Jamie Heaslip, there are no forwards who are capable of punching holes the opposition cover. Sean O’Brien’s return cannot come quick enough, and it is hard to see where Leinster can get their tries from this afternoon.
One key battle will be between Mike Brown and Rob Kearney. The two are regarded among the best fullbacks in world rugby at present. While Brown came out on top the last time they met, in the 6 Nations, Kearney enters this tie as the form player. Brown struggled in the Autumn Internationals, whereas Kearney rediscovered his flair of old, and will be eager to make amends for Twickenham last February.
Elsewhere, Harlequins look a solid unit, and are a much better side than when these two sides last met, in the infamous ‘Bloodgate’ match-up of 2009. Chris Robshaw was simply fantastic during November, and is one of the best open-side flankers around when it comes to winning ball on the ground. Jordi Murphy will need a big display to stem the threat of the England Captain. Danny Care and Nick Evans gel effectively, and appear to be the superior set of half-backs ahead of the game. Care can make breaks, and has performed better for Harlequins than for the Red Rose. Evans and Care are a simple partnership, but can hurt you on the scoreboard.
It is a big ask for Leinster to travel to London and come away with four points. Harlequins have had troubles of their own, and have just four wins from nine games in the Aviva Premiership. But home advantage could swing it. Leinster may have to settle for a losing bonus point, before next week’s return leg at Lansdowne Road.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.