By Brendan Cole
Leinster will seek to claim the first of two trophies in eight days against a Stade Francais side that is not the force of old in Friday night’s Amlin Challenge Cup final at the RDS tonight.
Traditionally considered a powerhouse of French rugby, Stade deserve plenty of respect despite their lowly Top 14 league position. It has been a decidedly average season but the Parisiens can still pull a big performance out of the bag.
They came closer than almost anyone to beating Clermont at Stade Marcel Michelin this season, and won on the road against Bath and Perpignan to reach the decider in this competition.
That said, there is no getting away from the fact Stade have been weakened on the playing field over the last couple of years, with Michael Cheika’s efforts to strengthen the squad with English and Antipodean talent largely failing to work.
This is a game Leinster should win.
But Leinster are also below their peak thanks to a risky team selection and some injury issues.
Leinster are below their peak thanks to a risky team selection and some injury issues
Head coach Joe Schmidt is clearly keeping something in reserve for the RaboDirect Pro12 final against Ulster on Saturday week. Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Heinke Van Der Merwe and Kevin McLaughlin are absent from the 22, with McLaughlin being rested, while Richardt Strauss, Leo Cullen, Cian Healy, and Shane Jennings are on the bench.
But even with those absentees, Leinster have quality in critical areas, in particular at tighthead prop, the back-row and in the 10-12 axis. Isaac Boss at scrum-half, along with Rob Kearney and Isa Nacewa in the back-three, bring excellence and experience that should give Leinster supporters some comfort.
Inexperience in the Leinster tight-five
But the lack of hardened players in the tight five is a worry. The relatively inexperienced Jack McGrath and Quinn Roux are given starting opportunities alongside Sean Cronin, Devin Toner and Mike Ross.
But Ross at tighthead gives Leinster a sound base against a Stade tight-five that is itself short of marquee names. Much will depend on Leinster’s pack standing tall and the memory of Ulster mowing through the Leinster eight in their Rabo fixture a few weeks back is fresh enough to warrant concern. But all going well, their capacity to play a high tempo with sound technique should see them through, at least until the cavalry arrive off the bench in the second half.
The ball-carrying power and breakdown effectiveness of Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip should also help keep Stade from getting on top.
Even so, Leinster may well opt to take the ball away from the trenches, with plenty of attacking ability in the backline.
Jonny Sexton and Ian Madigan have a tantalising combination of pace, footwork and passing range in the 10-12 axis, and with Kearney, Nacewa and the in-form Andrew Conway outside, the home side may opt to throw the dice on first or second phase more often than usual.
Stade will, of course, bring plenty to the party. Julien Dupuy is both technically sound and wily at scrum-half and Sergio Parisse’s ability to drag an entire pack along behind him is well known. The huge Australia David Lyons also presents a ball-carrying threat.
But if they can avoid a physical battering, Leinster’s work ethic, and the fact they have the structures and skills to make it count, should see them reign as both Heineken and Amlin Challenge champions for 24 hours or so.
Amlin Challenge Final Prediction:
Leinster 22-17 Stade Francais
Leinster team: Rob Kearney, Andrew Conway, Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Isa Nacewa, Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Mike Ross, Quinn Roux, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip (c).
Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Cian Healy, Jamie Hagan, Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings, John Cooney, Andrew Goodman,Dave Kearney
Stade Francais: Jérôme Porical; Jeremy Sinzelle, Geoffrey Doumayrou, Paul Williams, Hugo Bonneval; Jules Plisson, Julien Dupuy; Aled De Malmanche, Laurent Sempere, Rabah Slimani, Scott Lavalla, Gerhard Mostert, David Lyons, Pierre Rabadan, Sergio Parisse (c).
Replacements: Remy Bonfils, Stanley Wright, Jeremy Becasseau, Anton van Zyl, Lei Tomiki, Waisea Nayacalevu, Julien Arias, Paul Warwick.
Live radio coverage of Leinster v Stade Francais on Game On from 19:00 on Friday 17 May on RTÉ 2fm and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).