Tonight will tell Stuart Lancaster a lot.
Have his summer messages been taken on board? Has his desire to cut out soft tries been matched by his players? Has someone – or some players – filled Isa Nacewa’s boots, on and off the pitch?
A game in Cardiff Arms Park in late August might not be the biggest on the calendar, but a night in Cardiff almost 10 years ago to the day showed how much it can mean. On that day, Nacewa was the raw new recruit from New Zealand given his competitive debut in a backline that consisted of Shane Horgan, Brian O’Driscoll, Felipe Contepomi and Rob Kearney.
Full-back that day, the Kiwi went on to pull the strings in almost every shirt and became an integral part in the club’s history – playing a part in all four European Cup titles, honours that remain marked on the club shirt despite his retirement this summer.
Now, it’s up to others to take this club forward, for players to pass on the messages from Leo Cullen and Lancaster in the heat of battle, and for players to do so off it.
Rory O’Loughlin is a future pub quiz answer as the player who last replaced Nacewa in a Leinster shirt – and he did so in last season’s PRO14 grand final win over Scarlets at Aviva Stadium.
He speaks in glowing terms of how the veteran back was there for him over the course of his short years with the club, doling out nuggets of advice and a helping dose of encouragement when needed.
But no longer.
You noticed his absence at the start of pre-season, it was strange, I’d never really experienced that with a player,” O’Loughlin said this week.
He will start alongside Joe Tomane in a new-look midfield tonight, the Australian making his competitive debut in the same place Nacewa did – quite the coincidence.
The former Montpellier player can also fill in on the wing as well as midfield, and O’Loughlin expects his larger than life partner to punch holes and offload for fun, while also leaving space for him to flourish. But can Tomane fill Nacewa’s boots on and off the pitch? “Stuart made it evident early on that someone’s going to have to step into that void, and it’s not necessarily one player, there’s been a number of people who have stepped up,” O’Loughlin said.
“Ross Byrne is back training fully at out half and he’s driving the attack, then myself and a few of the centres have taken the onus in defence, then Rhys and some of the older players in the pack, Scott Fardy, even Ross Molony have stepped up and said what needed to be said at times.
It has been made clear to us that there are moments players are going to have to step up when it would have been Isa. It’s only when he’s gone that you realise how often he did that through the season, even be it one session when we’re off the mark, he’d bring us all in [together]. Stuart’s made it quite clear during one week when we were training poorly that it’s up to other players to see when we’re off the pace and get us back in line.
Against a team under new management and a side that thrives on counter-attack plays, Leinster will need all their wits about them tonight. Cardiff’s new coach John Mulvihill is relishing the visit of the European champions but has no intention to roll out the red carpet.
“It is a great way for us to kick off the season – the European Challenge Cup champions against the PRO14 and Champions Cup winners. It promises to be an awesome occasion in Cardiff and we cannot wait to get started,” he said.
“You have to play the best and it will be a massive challenge but if you saw the way these boys finished last season, they love a challenge and that will certainly be coming at us on Friday night. Our bread and butter is the PRO14 and we didn’t make the finals last year. You have to be top three to make the play-offs and we want to play finals rugby in this competition so we need to start well.”
D Kearney, A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, J Tomane, B Daly, R Byrne, L McGrath; P Dooley, J Tracy, M Bent, R Molony, S Fardy, J Murphy, R Ruddock (c), C Doris.
B Byrne, E Byrne, A Porter, M Kearney, M Deegan, J Gibson-Park, N Reid, F McFadden
M Morgan; J Harries, W Halaholo, R Lee-Lo, O Lane; J Evans, L Williams; B Thyer, K Dacey, D Arhip, S Davies, R Thornton, J Turnbull, E Jenkins, N Williams.
R Gill, E Lewis, S Andrews, G Earle, O Robinson, T Williams, S Shingler, G Smith.