Battle of the backs means a classic could be on the cards

LEINSTER’S galacticos may have a reputation as the most exciting back division in Europe but tomorrow they face a young Gloucester unit that is a serious pretender to their throne.

Unbeaten in the Guinness Premiership, Gloucester displayed their full box of tricks in the compelling derby against close rivals Worcester last weekend.

Hard as nails up front and blessed with running talent behind the scrum, Dean Ryan’s side scored three tries in the 33-24 away victory.

Not bad for a back line that has an average age of only 23.

Three of that unit — centres Jack Allen and Anthony Allen, as well as out-half Ryan Lamb — are just out of their teens while England internationals Iain Balshaw, scrum-half Peter Richards and James Simpson Daniel provide an experienced core.

“We’ve watched a lot of videos thanks to the good people at Sky Sports,” said Leinster wing Shane Horgan.

“We are as aware of them as we can be, even though some of their players haven’t been playing at the top level that long.

“They’ve made a big burst with players coming through last year and they’ve followed that up this year.

For Horgan and his teammates, it will be like meeting a younger version of themselves when the sides run out at Lansdowne Road tomorrow.

If opening day tensions do not get the better of the sides, a treat is in store.

“They do things that maybe some of us older horses wouldn’t try,” he laughed, “but they are an excellent side with an excellent back line and that is enjoyable to play against. I’m looking forward to it.”

Though Michael Cheika asserted that he was satisfied with his side’s scrum, the worry is that Leinster may struggle up front.

Though French prop Christian Califano and Italian lock Marco Bortolami are the only household names in the Gloucester pack, their collective strength is awesome as they demonstrated last Friday at Sixways.

Most impressive of all was how they thwarted a succession of Worcester surges on their own try line when they had two forwards in the sin-bin.

Whether the visitors adopt a grinding, forward-dominated approach or a more expansive game plan will depend on which of their three out-halves — Lamb, Ludovic Mercier or Willie Walker — gets the nod in Dublin.

Cheika has admitted that that uncertainty has multiplied his homework by three this week but both the coach and Horgan stressed that such adaptability is nothing new when preparing for opponents at this level.

“There’s very few teams at this level now that are completely one-dimensional or unable to adapt to conditions or the team they are playing against,” Horgan explained.

“They do have the ability to play both ways but I don’t think that is dependant purely on who they pick at ten. Their forward pack can dominate you but there will be a few backs looking for ball out wide as well.”

It adds up to a very tricky beginning to Leinster’s campaign and they don’t need reminding that last year’s European ambitions were very nearly scuppered at the first fence when another Premiership side, Bath, turned them over on Day One at the RDS.

If anything, Gloucester look an even better side than Bath — who were also hitting the heights domestically at the time — 12 months ago. Leinster too believe they have progressed.

Horgan certainly believes the side has moved on since last season when they were pipped for the Magners League and dumped out of the Heineken Cup semi-finals by their Irish rivals.

“Expectation levels were very low last year whereas they have probably been raised this year but the fact that Michael has been here a year helps in terms of organisation.

“That can only be a benefit to us.”

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