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Friday 9 December 2016

BLUES SEEK TO BATHE IN EURO GLORY

Leinster look to Ireland's best to make the Champions semi-final

All the cards are finally out on the table.

It is hit or miss, success or failure for Leinser and Bath at The Aviva Stadium in The Champions Cup quarter-final this afternoon (KO3.15, BTSport1)

Mike Ross is back to anchor these boys in Blue. Isaac Boss switches in for Eoin Reddan.

Fergus McFadden has won the battle for the right wing berth. Jordi Murphy completes the back row.

And that's just Leinster.

The pressure on coach Matt O'Connor will be redoubled should Leinster fall to The Premiership club.

Could it define his three-year tenure? "Ah, certainly no, it certainly defines the season because it's knockout rugby and you lose you are out of the competition," he replied.

"We've worked hard through the pool stages and now it's about taking that opportunity."

This season is a step-up from O'Connor's first in charge in the sense that Leinster have earned a home quarter-final instead of that away date with Toulon.

"Definitely, when you sit down at the start of the European season, you want to put yourself in a position to be at home in a quarter-final.

"With a hell of a lot of effort from the whole squad, we've achieved that.

"There is a huge opportunity for us there. You're two games game from a final if you can be good enough on Saturday.

"The lads understand the character from being there before. It's a golden opportunity for us, but you've got to earn it.

"We're not going to be given anything by Bath."

In real terms, Ireland's internationals will have to take this one by the scruff of the neck.

The spine of the team, populated by Rob Kearney, Ian Madigan, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Devin Toner, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross will have to be rigid in resistance.

There has been a stark contrast too from the spotlights shone on the respective out-halfs Jimmy Gopperth and George Ford.

While Leinster's playmaking ten took flak in his first season for standing in the way of Madigan, his form was sound.

It has not been as bombproof this season in what has been an up-and-down campaign.

It could just be that the increasing comfort of Madigan at twelve, where he will take the place-kicking duties, and the growing confidence of Ben Te'o at thirteen could be the outlets that allow Gopperth to flourish.

For Bath, Kyle Eastmond holds off Sam Burgess. Micky Young disappoints Peter Stringer. Carl Fearns nudges out Matt Garvey.

This has all the hallmarks of a potential classic as the West Country club take their all-court razzle-dazzle on the road to Dublin.

Ireland's former defence coach Mike Ford is not about to pull the reins on his thoroughbred runners.

The poise and panache with which they dismantled Toulouse at the Stade Ernest Wallon in January will surely be the template for today.

"We've talked this week about creating more memories," Ford said, in the Down The Blindside podcast.

It could just be that the pain endured by George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Anthony Watson and Dave Attwood will be transformed into something more positive this time at The Aviva.

"All the England boys have come back and talked about that week in particular," said Ford.

"I told them to bank it because we were obviously going to play Leinster there a few weeks later."

The Bath players have had time to digest how and where England went so horribly wrong against Ireland and they came to one simple conclusion.

"The England boys think they focussed too much on how good Ireland was. You need to be able to focus on yourselves as well.

"They say they got the balance wrong," he offered.

"They all knew how good Ireland was and it was a case of stopping them as opposed to imposing themselves.

"We've took that on board."

In other words, Bath will play it their way, shelve the evidence of the recent record books and concentrate more on what they can control.

"We know what a fantastic side Leinster are with them internationals and Matt O'Connor, a very experienced coach and the history they have over the last few years in Europe.

"We know all that," said Ford senior.

"At the same time, it's what we do. We focussed 70% on us this week and 30% on Leinster.

"That's no disrespect. It is just a case of we want to do what we want to do."

Leinster: R Kearney; F McFadden, B Te'o, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross, D Toner, M McCarthy, J Murphy, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

Bath: A Watson; H Agullo, J Joseph, K Eastmond, M Banahan; G Ford, M Young; P James, R Webber, K Palma-Newport, S Hooper (capt), D Attwood, C Fearns, F Louw, L Houston.

Verdict: Leinster.

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