WHILE WARREN GATLAND’S team continue to invoke their hoodoo over Ireland on the international stage, the provinces have no reason to fear the four Welsh clubs.
Cardiff were drawn to face Leinster in Saturday’s quarter-final after a stirring 36-30 victory over Racing Metro in January.
Now, 10 weeks later and after Wales captured the Six Nations, the Blues enter the knock-out match against Joe Schmidt’s men with the outsiders’ tag firmly tucked in their kitbag.
However, while Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton are absent through injury, and with Gavin Henson joining the jobless queues in Britain, the Blues retain talented operators such as Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and Gethin Jenkins.
Here are the three key battles that should decide the contest:
Much was made of Mike Ross’ yellow card after a tough outing against Marcus Horan. The Munster man planted Ross into the turf on more than one occasion but was spoken to on at least four occasions by referee Nigel Owens, who felt he was doing so illegally. The scrum fiasco did nothing to assure Irish fans that Leinster’s scrum should not be associated with the devastation Ross and Cian Healy suffered against England. Cardiff should welcome back Gethin Jenkins, nominee for European Player of the Year, into the front-row but Leinster’s eight-man pack will enjoy a more balanced contest.
Return of the tip tackler
Bradley Davies was last seen on the pitch at Lansdowne Road dumping Donnacha Ryan head over heels, then mocking Stephen Ferris when he attempted a similar move in the final minutes of Ireland’s defeat. The lock will return to the Blues’ fold and their coach, Justin Burnell, has described his presence in the squad as a ‘breath of fresh air’. Leo Cullen was rested against Munster last week but looks set to partner All Black Brad Thorn in the second row. Leinster’s line-out jumped well last week and threw off Munster hooker Damien Varley completely. If they can repeat that on Saturday, it should provide another attacking platform for the Leinster backs.
Carrying the water for Jamie and Sean
The breakdown has, once again, dominated the pre-match chatter and Joe Schmidt will be relieved that Sam Warburton will not be on the pitch to shovel back possession for the Blues. Kevin McLaughlin was solid last week against Munster and Sean O’Brien gave Leinster impetus when he came off the bench at Thomond Park. Schmidt must chose between giving the Number 7 jersey to O’Brien or letting the Tullow man do damage as blindside flanker. With Warburton missing, it would be encouraging if the Leinster coach went with McLaughlin or Shane Jennings as scramblers and let O’Brien and Heaslip carry some ball. The chaos they can potentially create should make the Jamie Robert’s-sized hole in the midfield all the more gaping.