Ahead of the European clash in Devon this weekend we analyse Exeter vs Leinster and the key head to heads.
Both Chiefs and Leinster have a smattering of internationals across their 15's, with the likes of recent Lions test trio Tadhg Furlong, Jonny Sexton and Sean O'Brien all in the Irish 15. Exeter's international stars are spread across the whole 23, with Harry Williams and Henry Slade starting. Bench options Sam Simmonds and Jack Nowell will look to add an international level of impact in the second half.
Harry Williams vs CIan Healy
The back to form Healy packs down at loosehead tomorrow, looking to claim his starting berth back from Jack McGrath permanently. England's newly capped Harry Williams takes up his place at the opposing side of the scrum. Healy's return to form of late has seen him pick back up his explosiveness on both sides of the ball. Being the larger of the two men, Williams will be hoping to use every ounce of the extra 6kgs he has to sap Healy's energy in the scrum. Equally, the irishman will be hoping to keep Williams' reserves low. Exeter play their wide game through the backs to get up to the opposition's 5 metre line, utilising the pack for one-out-carries to either crash over the whitewash or tie in enough defenders for the likes of Ollie Woodburn to cross over in the corner. If Healy can cause Williams to seep enough energy from the scrum, the England tighthead may not be able to make those extra few inches 5 metres out or run his usual support lines further down the pitch.
Luke Cowan-Dickie vs Sean Cronin
When it comes to comparing the sides' hookers, there are the usual points of line-out accuracy and contribution to the scrum. This matchup however goes much further. The two men are the most dynamic hookers in the northern hemisphere. With the ability to demonstrate the type of athleticism that should see them banned from the front row union, they will also both be aiming to impress on the European scene in hope of regaining their places in international squads for the impending Six Nations.
The Exeter and Leinster packs are both loaded with a whole lot of muscle. This is sure to be a particularly bruising battle upfront. Cowan-Dickie and Cronin will both be hoping to make the most of this and catch out a few heavy legged big boys for a break or two. The two men in the middle have the capability to greatly influence the end result. Coming out on top in this head to head could mean the difference between partaking in the Six Nations or watching from the armchair.
Alec Hepburn vs Tadhg Furlong
Hepburn and Furlong, two young props with plenty more to offer than solidarity at set piece. They may be of a similar age and height, but Furlong has Hepburn well and truly beat in two areas, weight and experience. At 25 kilos the better and coming off 3 test starts for the British and Irish Lions, you'd argue Furlong wins this matchup hands down.
That is however until you take into consideration their differing playing styles. Hepburn's game is greatly centred around his dynamism. The former Wasps academy man makes the most of being lightweight and fits in excellently to the Chiefs' wide attacking game. Furlong is more likely to be found towards the centre of the pitch. Strong as an Ox while still showing very reasonable mobility at 126kg, the Dubliner gets through an outrageous amount of work both sides of the ball. The Exeter defence will have a job on their hands winning the game line battle with Furlong around. Just for fun, here's a video of Tadhg throwing some All Blacks' Player of the Year award winners around.
Both front rowers play influential roles for their sides, whether it's Furlong trucking his way through the middle or Hepburn making metres and joining backline moves. The hope of sapping the other's stamina in the scrum should be a must for either side if they want to get the best of their opposing man.
Matt Kvesic vs Sean O'Brien
Again we see a huge disparity in experience between Chiefs' and Leinster's opensides. Sean O'Brien has 50 Ireland caps and 5 British and Irish Lions test appearances. Matt Kvesic is currently well out of the international scene and sits on a solitary 3 England caps. The higher the standard of rugby the more importance is placed on the breakdown. O'Brien's pedigree is clear to see and requires little explanation. The 'Tullow Tank' is a true gladiator and gives as good as he gets against the world's best opponents.
Kvesic faces possibly the biggest battle of his career. Recently finding form following his summer move from Gloucester, the former Worcester man will be eager to get stuck in. Despite his lack of caps, when Kvesic is in his groove he can be an absolute nuisance at the breakdown and his attacking offerings are better than most English 7's. He does however have a tendency to rack up a high penalty count. If he is to stand toe to toe with O'Brien, Kvesic will need to bring his A game and maintain discipline. If he can find parity with the Irishman he may nail down a starting spot for Chiefs, if he allows O'Brien to run the show, Exeter will have a hard day at the office.
Gareth Steenson vs JoHnny Sexton
It's not often we see two Irishmen lining up against each other when English and Irish sides meet, but this is just the first of two we will be addressing. Sexton's pedigree is well known. Many times capped by Ireland and the Lions, there isn't another level for Sexton to play at. He's been there, done that and bought the t-shirt back through customs on the flight home.
When it comes to Gareth Steenson, Chiefs have been his bread and butter since 2008, running the show with his clock work boot. While it is likely Sexton would win this battle hands down on the international scene, at club level Steenson is rarely found wanting. The Chiefs' fly-half knows his backline, the stadium and the fans like the back of his hand, after all, it's almost all he's known. While that may sound like a bit of a dig, my intention is to point out just how well ingrained Steenson is to the Chiefs. He's not likely to make scintilating breaks like Sexton or pull off some dazzling backline move, but he'll have his team working around him as if it was part of his armour.
Both fly-halves have the benefit of a bruising and usually dominant pack, equally as happy to crash it up through the middle as to show off their talents in open play. The one area Sexton has his opposite number beaten for sure, is in defence. Sexton will likely find Steenson his equal at European level, with defensive capability being the only area of real weakness for the Chiefs' man. This weekend's final game will hinge significantly on their ability to unlock their outside men while maintaining their accuracy from the boot
Ian Whitten vs Robbie Henshaw
Our second and final all Irish matchup sits at inside centre. Former Ulsterman Ian Whitten will face up against Ireland's current first choice 12, Robbie Henshaw. Both are equally adept at utilising their physicality in attack and defence, with the added ability to turn on the burners having spent plenty of time at 13 and in the outside backs.
Despite the eye catching talent of Henry Slade and Gary Ringrose in their respective 13 jerseys, it seems likely this showdown at inside centre may well have a greater impact on the run of play. This may be the most simple of the head to heads so far. Whoever comes out on top physically and wins the game-line battle will set the tone for the foundations Ringrose, Slade and the rest of their outside backs will have to work from.
So where does this leave us?
The running theme through all of these matchups is experience and exposure to the highest levels of rugby. Chiefs are the form side in England and have been for 12 months while Leinster haven't been hitting the heights they once were in the last few years. So form and experience will be the theme of the day. Can Chiefs out-muscle the Leinster pack while demonstrating their usual attacking prowess? Or will Leinster's pedigree shine through and leave Rob Baxter's European dreams in their wake?