Saints won’t spoil Leinster party

‘Tis the season for Christmas jumpers, blue Santa hats, and Leinster at the Aviva.

Saints won’t spoil Leinster party

‘Tis the season for Christmas jumpers, blue Santa hats, and Leinster at the Aviva.

This is a rugby game like no other in the Irish calendar.

Thousands of those who turn up will be floating voters at best, the usual trickle of punters to and from the bars will swell into a torrent even as the game goes on and, win or lose, the party will only be getting started.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the sheer volume of people that continue to flock to this fixture.

Today’s meeting with Northampton Saints will mark the 10th such ‘performance’ of its type and close to 400,000 people have taken in the previous nine of these December dates.

That’s an average of 43,322 punters per game across the decade.

That’s enormous in rugby terms.

Plenty has changed in that time. The European Cup experienced a tectonic shift.

So too have Leinster, who were continental kingpins when they welcomed Clermont Auvergne to Ballsbridge in 2010 and are now back hovering around the summit after a fallow period in between.

Leinster have won some (six) and lost some (three). Some have been electric, others have failed to ignite.

Leo Cullen won’t care either way today as long as Leinster win, but he was able to appreciate the bigger picture yesterday and talk about how the combination of venue, entertainment, and success has kept the crowds coming.

“Yeah, they do have to be closely aligned in terms of the style of play and support base, because people do have other choices,” said the province’s head coach.

“There’s lots going on in, say, Dublin, so people can choose to do numerous different things.

“So we have to play a brand of rugby that will make people come and watch it and of course every now and again you have to adapt your game to the conditions and games tighten up and that’s just the nature of the seasons that we play in.”

Northampton have spoiled this party before when responding to a resounding Leinster win in Franklin’s Gardens six years ago with an unlikely to 18-9 win at the Aviva a week later.

It’s nigh on impossible to envisage a repeat here.

The visitors have made the trip without at least 10 players through injury, among them England second-row Courtney Lawes, the Kiwi props Ben and Owen Franks, and South African scrum-half and World Cup winner Cobus Rheinach.

Not just that, but Teimana Harrison, the No.8 who frustrated Leinster so much at the breakdown during last week’s clash in the East Midlands, and the impressive young centre Ryan Hutchinson have been left out entirely.

The starting nine, 20-year-old Connor Tupai, is the club’s fourth-choice scrum-half. This is only going one way.

Leinster have made five changes to their eight, but only two have been forced by injury. Most notable is Ross Byrne.

He starts at out-half in place of Jonathan Sexton who was forced off with a knee injury in England seven days ago.

Cullen was vague about possible return dates for the Ireland 10, but confirmed that he will see another specialist, this time in the UK.

The bad news for Leinster is he is unlikely to feature for the club again until April. The good news for Ireland is that he is on course for the Six Nations.

“Yeah, well, you would love if he was back, but it’s probably more realistic for Ireland,” said Cullen.

The other enforced change sees James Tracy come in at hooker in place of Ronan Kelleher, while Luke McGrath for Jamison Gibson-Park, Tadhg Furlong for Andrew Porter, and Scott Fardy for Devin Toner are all rotational decisions.

Leinster could hardly be in a better position, even with Sexton’s injury.

The clamour for starting positions and slots on the bench is only growing.

Caelan Doris’ ongoing presence on the teamsheet during this European swing of four games in five weeks is further proof of the team’s evolution, and plenty more are eager to join him.

The back row alone has the likes of Max Deegan, Will Connors, and Josh Murphy vying for opportunities.

That backlog may create issues and stir thoughts of switches to other provinces for some down the line, but Cullen’s take on that was interesting.

Ultimately they want to go on and play for Ireland anyway, and if they get ahead of their competition at Leinster then there is a good chance that they will progress at Ireland as well.

"By moving away from that challenge, is that helping or hindering you, really?”

Ross Byrne may be the poster boy for that sort of patience.

He is 24 already, still an understudy at club level and an inconsistent presence in the national set-up, but he has played 80 times for the province, with a quarter of those appearances coming in Europe.

Would he better off anywhere else?

Sexton’s absence this next while offers him the opportunity to build an even stronger case for himself with club and country at a time when Sexton and Joey Carbery are unavailable through injury and Jack Carty starting at full-back for Connacht.

Expect another ‘W’ for his CV this evening.

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