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Sunday 20 October 2019

Festive fare at Aviva

Leinster can expect Christmas cheer at the national stadium

Luke Fitzgerald scored two tries against Bath in 2011. Photo: Sportsfile
Luke Fitzgerald scored two tries against Bath in 2011. Photo: Sportsfile

The Aviva hasn't always brought the warm, fuzzy feeling associated with Christmas to Leinster.

The dilapidated, old Lansdowne Road was torn down in 2007 and replaced with a spectacular, modern structure that was supposed to make Leinster almost unbeatable in the European Cup.

It started out that way when their familiar rivals Clermont-Auvergne were rolled over 24-8 on opening night, which attracted a record-breaking 44,873 supporters.

"It was great to bring a home fixture here and the atmosphere was unbelievable," reacted Cian Healy, who powered to two tries.

Bath were then completely dissected for seven tries, with two for Luke Fitzgerald, the most memorable of which was a strike play with the opposition unable to lay a hand on him.

The first crack showed in 2012 when Clermont finally delivered on their promise to shatter Leinster.

Narrow

The reigning champions were intent on turning the tables from a narrow 15-12 defeat at Stade Michelin.

Instead, they were overpowered by the French giants as 'le petit général' Morgan Parra smacked eight of nine kicks to go with Wesley Fofana's try.

"I knew Clermont would come to play and they'd be better than they were last week," noted then coach Joe Schmidt.

"I think we out-thought them last week and they just out-muscled us this week."

It deteriorated into two-in-a-row in 2013 in what could best be described as the biggest shock in Leinster's time at the national stadium. The previous week, Brian O'Driscoll's between-the-legs pass for Fitzgerald's try was the standout moment in a 40-7 humiliation of the Saints at Franklin's Gardens.

There seemed to be a 'job done' mentality from the Blues when they couldn't bring the physicality required.

In contrast, Northampton turned down kicks at goal in favour of going to their maul in what was a boom-or-bust tactic.

"We didn't look after the ball as well as we would have liked," said coach Matt O'Connor. "They kicked it into the corners and drove and made it hard for us to get any field position in the game."

Conor O'Shea's Harlequins gave as good as they got to come within one point (14-13) of a third straight setback in 2014. In between Harlequins and Toulon, Australian O'Connor was replaced with Leo Cullen in what would be a turbulent first season in charge.

The slump to three losses in four Christmas appearances was more predictable when the 'galacticos' of Juan Smith, Duane Vermeulen, Ma'a Nonu, Bryan Habana and Matt Giteau had too much in the tank in 2015.

Leinster had their backs to the wall and came out fighting to construct an 11-point lead in a barnstorming show of force. However, they did not have enough left in the tank to withstand Toulon's surge, caving in at the scrum for a penalty try and to hooker Anthony Etrillard's at the back of the maul, all in the final quarter.

Since then, Leinster's resurgence in Europe has coincided with impressive victories over Northampton Saints and English champions Exeter Chiefs to go some way towards repairing the damage done.

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