THIS IS AS close as it gets to Boks-Office. The Aviva Stadium, the defending champions, the Currie Cup winners, Ireland’s dominant province meeting the South African equivalent (kick-off 5.15pm, RTE2).
Everyone, it seems, has a point to prove. For Johnny Sexton in particular, but also James Ryan, Hugo Keenan and Garry Ringrose, there’s nothing they’d like more than to show Warren Gatland he was wrong to ignore them last summer.
As for the Bulls, well they have their own cause. Last time they were in Europe, they were humiliated by Benetton, who – it appears – they grossly underestimated in last season’s Rainbow Cup final. They won’t make that mistake again.
Rated by far the strongest of the South African provinces, the Bulls have money behind them, and even though they don’t have their Springboks to call on this weekend, they do have the advantage of being in the middle of their season, whereas Leinster are just setting out on theirs.
What will comfort Leo Cullen, however, is the fact that he is only really missing his four Lions. Normally at this time of year, he’d be without at least 15 Irish internationals covered in cotton wool after a long summer tour.
And like the Bulls, they too have an emotional bruise that needs curing. La Rochelle bullied them in Europe last season, just as Saracens did the season before. Given the Bulls’ physical reputation, this is as good a place as any for Leinster’s pack to show they have toughened up.
“They were the most dominant team in the Currie Cup by a significant margin,” said Cullen yesterday, “and I see they’ve added Bismarck Du Plessis since as well.
“In terms of the quality that they have, the tradition and heritage that all those teams have as well…I find it amazing, really, that we’re in the same competition now because they’re teams I watched in Super Rugby when I was younger.
“For us it’s a very, very tough challenge because we’re starting off and some guys are playing their first game of the season against a team that is battle-hardened, but it is what it is, we just need to get on with it now and try to prepare well.”
Preparations have largely focussed on Andrew Porter’s big switch from tighthead to loosehead with Cian Healy making a move in the opposite direction. While that’s something worth keeping an eye on, it’s likely Andy Farrell will be intrigued to see how Ryan Baird and James Ryan pair up against such hard-nosed opponents.
“A lot of unknowns,” was how Cullen referred to his team’s first steps into a new campaign, compared to the Bulls’ arrival into this competition on the back of a lengthy domestic programme.
“They’ll test us around set piece in particular, in and around the contact area they’re very aggressive both sides of the ball, a pretty direct midfield pairing in (Harold) Vorster and Lionel Mapoe and then some of the ball carrying backrowers that they have as well that we’re familiar with, the likes of (Marcell) Coetzee, but (Elrigh) Louw as well, even (Arno) Botha who was with Munster.
“They’re very aggressive carriers, aggressive around the ruck and it is up to us to make sure that we’re nice and accurate at that area.”
Given the venue – the Aviva – given the fact 20,000 fans will be in attendance after the year we’ve just had, there is a sense that the occasion will provide an adrenaline rush to compensate for the fact that this is game number one of Leinster’s campaign.
Access members-only podcasts, analysis and insider reports from The42’s Murray Kinsella
Plus, Cullen wasn’t shy about pointing out that ‘everyone starts off from scratch at the start of the season’. That goes for the players named, irrespective of their past experience. Those selected for this evening’s game know they have to perform to stay in the team, Leinster’s depth highlighted by the fact that they selected Rhys Ruddock, Caelan Doris and Josh van der Flier in their back row with Max Deegan on the bench and Dan Leavy, Jack Conan, Scott Penny and Will Connors sitting in the stands.
That’s a reminder of their class. So never mind these new teams arriving from south of the equator into this competition, Leinster remain the team to beat in it. And that’s no Bull.
15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Rory O’Loughlin, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Ciaran Frawley, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Luke McGrath, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 James Ryan, 4 Ross Molony, 3 Michael Ala’alatoa, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 James Tracy, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Cian Healy, 19 Ryan Baird, 20 Max Deegan, 21 Jamison Gibson-Park, 22 Ross Byrne, 23 Jamie Osborne
15 David Kriel, 14 Cornal Hendricks, 13 Lionel Mapoe, 12 Harold Vorster, 11 Madosh Tambwe, 10 Johan Goosen, 9 Zak Burger, 8 Elrigh Louw, 7 Arno Botha, 6 Marcell Coetzee (captain), 5, Ruan Nortje, 4 Walt Steenkamp, 3 Mornay Smith, 2 Bismarck du Plessis, 1 Gerhard Steenkamp
Replacements: 16 Joe van Zyl, 17 Simphiwe Matanzima, 18 Jacques van Rooyen, 19 Janko Swanepoel, 20 Jacques du Plessis, 21 Keagan Johannes, 22 Chris Smith, 23 Stedman GansInternet Explorer Channel Network