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Wednesday 29 January 2020

Blues must rein in duo

Leinster must stop threat of South African Reinach and winger Naiyaravoro

TACTICS: Johnny Sexton will have to be very accurate with his kicking to help nullify the threat of Saints’ winger Naiyaravoro
TACTICS: Johnny Sexton will have to be very accurate with his kicking to help nullify the threat of Saints’ winger Naiyaravoro

After a week's break, the Champions Cup returns, and with it, several intriguing pool matches, not least high-flying Northampton Saints versus Leinster.

A few months ago, when the European draw first came out, Leo Cullen could have afforded a slight grin.

All the heavyweights, including Racing 92 and 2019 champions Saracens, had migrated into Munster's so-called 'group of death', while Leinster, it seemed, had a pretty seamless ride.

Roll on a few months and things have changed. Both Lyon and Northampton have fared well while their international stars were away in Japan, and Benetton Treviso had just completed their best Pro14 season ever.

With Lyon and Northampton suddenly both on top of their respective domestic competition's, things were suddenly not looking so comfy for the Blues coach.

Leinster have already successfully navigated a difficult away trip to France, and now they must try to replicate that away form in Northampton's Franklin's Gardens this weekend.

Control

If they can manage this, then one would presume that they can win the second of their back-to-back matches with the Saints in the Aviva a week later.

And, more importantly, win these two games and they can rest easy over Christmas knowing that the control of the group is in their own destiny, and a home draw in the knockouts on the cards.

For Northampton - a lucky escape in Italy two weeks ago when Benetton probably deserved a draw - will have them on guard, but they will need a big performance to defeat a Leinster team that at the moment can do no wrong.

Last weekend Leinster's conveyor belt kicked into gear, when Cullen was able to rotate his team and still win away in Glasgow, a luxury for most teams in Europe, but a concern for the Scottish game in general, and not great for the Pro14 as a whole, where the Welsh provinces are also failing to make much of an impression.

In Franklin's Gardens Northampton defeated a poor enough Leicester Tigers team, where ex-Irish international Geordan Murphy must surely be feeling the heat after a dreadful start to the season.

Northampton play an attractive brand of rugby under Kiwi Chris Boyd, but you would feel they need to produce a bit more to threaten Leinster that while still not playing to their best, are doing enough.

One area where Leinster will have to be wary is Northampton's Southern Hemisphere duo of Springbok World Cup winner Cobus Reinach at scrum-half, and Fijian monster Taqele Naiyaravoro on the wing.

Both players are in a rich vein of form, especially Reinach, who seems to be the fulcrum of everything Northampton do well.

Fiji's electric winger is almost unstoppable, but the only criticism is that he needs Northampton to feed him the ball going forward, Leinster will need to shut that down.

Like a lot of physically-imposing wingers they have difficulty in turning or retrieving ball behind them - they tend to need the ball on a plate rather than go looking for it in general play. And even in the kick-chase game these types of bludgeoning, power players prefer to be on the ground and not in the air.

Johnny Sexton is an excellent reader of players, and he will know to drop the ball in behind the big Fijian, or send his chasers into the air against him, take him out of his comfort zone, which is on the end of the line with room to build up speed.

Leinster's Jordan Lamour will be praying Sexton gets it right, as a few feet off and the sight of the 6ft 5in, 130kg winger with ball in hand is not a pleasant one, despite Larmour's bravery in the tackle.

At scrum-half, Northampton hold the edge over Leinster, especially in Reinach's excellent fast-breaking game.

By contrast, Leinster's Luke McGrath has seen a slight dip in form in recent weeks.

If he starts, he will be feeling the pressure, not only from the newly Irish-qualified Kiwi and Leinster team-mate Jamison Gibson-Park who finished well last week in Glasgow, but also internationally from a host of inform scrum-halves led by John Cooney.

The Ulsterman seems to be doing enough to have new Irish coach Andy Farrell considering who his starting No 9 will be in the opening round of the 2020 Six Nations.

McGrath is a quality player, who just needs to rediscover his quick-passing game this weekend.

Northampton may need to keep this game tight and, in that regard, they could do with All Black prop Ben Franks and English second-row Courtney Lawes.

Franks is definitely out, while Lawes' selection, even for the return fixture in Dublin, would be a major surprise.

They will miss the experience of those players, although they may welcome back Welsh out-half Dan Biggar from a toe injury - it could not be in a worse position for a kicking out-half .

Last weekend Northampton's lineout was effective, but then again Leicester were so poor, it is hard to judge.

Cullen will have seen that Northampton at times struggle against a good mauling side, and that is one area where Leinster are good, so expect a few early take-and-drive balls from the lineout and for Leinster to test Northampton's close-in pillar defence.

Selection wise, Cullen is in a healthy position, his team more or less picks itself, barring a couple of positions.

For me, McGrath starts at scrum-half with Max Deegan or Caelan Doris at No 8.

Deegan had an excellent game in Lyon, where he carried ball well, showed a good skill set and delivered a match-wining try.

Doris, on the other hand, was also very good last week.

My opinion is that if it's not broke don't fix it, Deegan starts.

Northampton really know that they must win this home game, as coming to the Aviva the week after in search of an away win would be tough.

Leinster have won away in this very venue in 2013 and in 2017, and it will be an aggressive and tight match, Leinster to prove that the English game is not as powerful as many may think.

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