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Leinster Rugby host Wasps at a sold-out Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday afternoon in what looks set to be a European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final classic.
The two teams – who met in the pool stages of last year’s competition – clash at the home of Irish rugby in a game which will see two attack-minded teams go head-to-head.
Wasps sit top of the Aviva Premiership, while Leinster lead the way in the Pro12, summing up both side’s impressive form so far this term. Leo Cullen’s men will be without two of their key Irish internationals, but are in confident mood ahead of playing in front of a partisan home crowd.
“Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip are definitely out for the next few weeks, but other than that we’re in pretty good shape,” said Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
“Jamie has had an operation on his back, but Johnny Sexton is fit and available.
“Johnny has had some big games for Leinster, even though he’s not had a great run of matches this season. When he has played, he has been excellent and I thought one of his best games for us was against Montpellier at the RDS.
“Defensively Wasps are a tough team to play against and in attack they’re a real threat. I think we’ve scored around 79 tries this season and they’re very close to that. It’s two attack minded teams going head-to-head.
“Both teams have dangerous players, but we need to concede four tries or less to win the game.
“With the Irish players coming back into our side it will add an extra edge to us. To have sold 48,00 tickets for a club match at the Aviva Stadium is incredible really. It’s going to be a great occasion, but Leinster have been in this position before. You can see the big players stepping up this week.
“Wasps have a pretty unique way of playing. If we let them have the ball for long periods or turn it over, they will punish you on the counterattack.”
Wasps thrashed Leinster twice last season, scoring more than 50 points in the game in Coventry.
This is likely to be a different story, with things expected to be much tighter between two teams boasting a host of international stars.
Lancaster added: “It’s important to learn from what happened last year and the mistakes we made to allow those kind of scores. But we are a different team to last year and a lot has happened since then.
“The Aviva is right up there with the most intimidating stadiums in world rugby. We’re looking forward to playing there in the first European quarter-final of the weekend.
“Hopefully we can set the benchmark for the other teams to follow.”
Dai Young’s Wasps head to Dublin in fine fettle and intent on making another semi-final.
Last year’s competition saw the Ricoh Arena outfit lose to eventual winners Saracens in the last four, but this season they have a host of star players in excellent form.
England pair Joe Launchbury and Elliot Day are just two of those.
Wasps captain Launchbury said: “We’ve got a squad who have worked extremely hard to get into this position. We’ve got ourselves out of a very tough pool, there were times when we weren’t favourites to get out of it, so we want to do ourselves justice now.
“Leinster have obviously got some key players in their team. They have quality throughout. You look at a player like Johnny Sexton and the influence he has on a team. For us as a team it’s more exciting than anything else. It’s a chance for us to go out there on a big stage and show what we can do.
“We’ve worked hard to get ourselves here, we’ve had a few big games over the last couple of years that we can draw on as experience and we want to keep having these big games.
“To go to the Aviva and get a win would be huge for us.”
- This will be the eighth meeting between the clubs in the European Cup. Wasps hold the head-to-head advantage having won four of the previous seven (D1, L2).
- Wasps won both pool stage matches against Leinster last season, and their 51-10 victory at the Ricoh Arena remains Leinster's heaviest European defeat.
- Leinster won their three home games in the pool stage by an average margin of 40 points, while Wasps won just one of their three away games (D1, L1, won v Zebre).
- Saturday will be Wasps' 100th fixture in the European Cup (W63, D3, L33). The 2004 and '07 winners are the 12th club to reach a century of matches.
- Leinster scored the most tries and points in the pool stage with 31 and 227 respectively, and their captain, Isa Nacewa, is the leading try scorer with six.
- This is the seventh time Wasps have reached the knockout stage.
- Leinster have qualified for the knockout stage for the 12th time (W7, L4) and have won five of their last six quarter-final matches.
- The three-time champions won all 35 scrums on their own feed in the pool stage, and were the only side with 100% success rate. Wasps, by contrast, had the lowest scrum success rate (81%).
- Of the 72 players to make 40+ carries in the pool stage only Montpellier's Nemani Nadolo (9.6) had a better average gain per carry than Wasps' Josh Bassett (8.8 metres).
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Leinster survived a spirited second half revival from Wasps as they gained ample revenge for their two big beatings by the English side last season to become the first qualifiers for the Champions Cup semi-finals.
They led by 22 points after 48 minutes, with three tries already to their credit, saw the gap cut to eight points on the hour, but then rallied to secure a ninth semi-final. They will now travel to France to meet the winner of the game between ASM Clermont Auvergne and RC Toulon.
The battle between the top two teams in the PRO12 and Premiership, and Europe’s leading try scorers, turned into a bit of a one-way street in the first-half as Leinster dominated possession and territory and conjured up three tries for the crowd of 50,266 to enjoy.
Joey Carbery, fitting in at full back for the injured Rob Kearney, as a real box of tricks for the home side and played a key role in two of the tries as he showed off his skills to a 50,000 crowd. But as much as Carbery class was the catalyst for the tries, the pace, power and precision of the home forwards that really turned the screw.
Wasps simply couldn’t get enough of the ball, or hold on to it losing enough when they did have it, to create any real pressure. Kurtley Beale did provide a moment of magic with a brilliant break over half-way to send Willie le Roux racing to the line, but the South African marked his European debut with one of the gaffe’s of the season as he dived over the line and lost the ball.
Leinster didn’t miss a trick after Johnny Sexton had given them an early lead with a penalty. Carbery sent his skipper, Isa Nacewa, over in the left corner with a great, cut-out pass. Le Roux’s calamitous moment came in the 25th minute and had they scored then, Wasps could well have taken the lead when Jimmy Gopperth hammered over a 40 metres penalty after 32 minutes.
But instead, Leinster made the most of their good fortune as Carberry returned a loose kick with interest and then acted as the link man to send No 8 Jack Conan striding over for a second home try. Sexton added the extras and then played his part in a third try on the stroke of half-time for Robbie Henshaw.
The outside half, who will be chasing a fourth European Cup title this season and a fifth European winners medal, converted and then extended the lead to 22 points eight minutes after the break with a further penalty. Wasps looked down and out, but Dai Young changed four players and managed to inject some much needed energy.
One of his replacements, back row man Ashley Johnson, provided Christian Wade with some space on the home 10 mere line with a long pass and the England wing kicked ahead and easily won the race for his 16th try of the season. Gopperth kicked the conversion, but there was still a mountain to climb for the visitors.
That man Gopperth, playing his 50th game for Wasps against one of his former clubs, provided the inspiration for a further improvement when he beat four men in a 25 metre run to score a try that he also converted. Now there were only eight points in it as the game moved into the final quarter and the next score was going to be crucial.
Leinster grabbed it, and with it the game, as Fergus McFadden picked up a ball laid back on a plate by the charging Devin Toner two metres out for the fourth Leinster try. Sexton converted and that was that.