Rugby fever kicks off with the Rabo Pro12/Amlin Challenge in the RDS, a Rugby treat in the run up to next week’s Heineken Cup Final at Aviva Stadium.
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For the fourth year running Leinster have earned themselves a home semi-final and for the fourth year running they aim to reach the final.
Victory this evening would thus leave them two RDS finals short of a Rabo Pro12/Amlin Challenge Cup double, but having painfully lost the last three league deciders, one ventures this is the trophy they would most covet.
As usual, Leinster have hit form in the second half of the campaign, winning all but one of their 15 games since losing at Ravenhill before Christmas, reminding us of their attacking quality in more typically end-of-season conditions against Biarritz a fortnight ago, and reminding them and us of what might have been had they taken a draw from their trip to Clermont.
Back at something resembling optimum strength on foot of Joe Schmidt making nine changes from the team which beat the Ospreys a week ago (with Seán O’Brien a doubt due to the calf strain he picked up last week) the bookies make Leinster 10-point favourites.
Won only once
The Warriors have won only once in nine previous league and European visits to the RDS and, indeed, just once in 15 visits to Dublin; a 23-19 win during the World Cup window last September.
Nonetheless, on closer examination this could be much closer than that. This being a reprise of last season’s league semi-final here, as well as being drawn in the same Heineken Cup pool last term, the sides will thus be meeting for an eighth time in two seasons, and familiarity has bred increasing competitiveness.
Except for one handsome Leinster win here in the cup, there has never been more than a score in it. Glasgow outscored Leinster two tries to one and came within a forward pass of beating themhere in March, when the home side were indebted to a virtuoso, 22-point performance by Ian Madigan.
But perhaps the most relevant yardstick is last season’s semi-final, when Leinster were hard-pressed to come through 19-15.
Glasgow also arrive in form, with eight wins from their last 10 Pro12 games, and are also locked and, more or less, fully loaded. Gregor Townsend has made seven changes and one positional switch to the side which beat Connacht 20-3 in Galway last week, with Peter Horne moving from inside centre to outhalf and Ruaridh Jackson dropping to the bench.
Alex Dunbar comes in for Horne, with the Lions duo of Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland, along with their ultra dangerous Player of the Year, Fijian scrumhalf Niko Matawalu, big-carrying number eight Josh Strauss, captain Al Kellock and Scottish loosehead Ryan Grant all back in.
“Leinster have set the benchmark in European rugby for the last three or four seasons and we are under no illusions as to the size of the challenge that awaits us in Dublin,” said Townsend.
“Winning in Galway has created vital momentum for us after our home victory against the Ospreys.
“We narrowly lost to Leinster in March but we were pleased with a number of aspects of our game that night,” he added.
“We’ve improved since then and we’re really looking forward to another opportunity to play at the RDS.”
Scanning through their team, from the sniping breaks of Matawalu to the speed and opportunism of their Lions duo and all-time record try-scorer DTH van der Merwe on the wing, one can well understand why they arrive here as the highest try scorers in the league with 66.
Leinster struggled to recycle the ball quickly in last season’s semi-final and the meeting in March, and Connacht management and players alike describe Glasgow as the best breakdown team they have faced all season, quickly on to the ball and hard to shift off it.
With forecasts suggesting rain, conditions will not be as idyllic as they were for the Biarritz game, and as Joe Schmidt admitted “I don’t think they’re a good team to get. We’ve managed to get a couple of skinny victories over them so far and they’ll come here reasonably confident.”
Yet the value of getting down and dirty in the middle of the season is amply illustrated by that 6-0 win in Scotstoun during the November Test window, thanks to which Leinster are at home tonight.
With their own quotient of six Lions in harness, if O’Brien is passed fit, and with Jonny Sexton refreshed, relaxed and on a mission, they should just have enough fire-power.