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Dublin: 10 °C Tuesday 19 June, 2018
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Resurgent Connacht out to end RDS hoodoo and halt the Leinster juggernaut

The western province have not beaten Leinster in Dublin since 2002, but are on an upward curve under Kieran Keane.

Connacht have never won at the RDS but are looking to end that run today.
Connacht have never won at the RDS but are looking to end that run today.
Image: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

IT HAS TAKEN a while for them to get going, but Connacht are on an upward curve under Kieran Keane and head into Monday’s Guinness Pro14 inter-pro against Leinster [KO 3.15pm, TG4] on the back of three straight wins.

But for all the recent positivity out west, and a run of form which has seen them move closer to the Pro14 playoff berths and stand on the verge of the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, it’s difficult to envisage anything other than a home victory at the RDS on New Year’s Day.

Leinster are the in-form team in Europe at present and they themselves have won five on the bounce, including the back-to-back wins over Exeter Chiefs and then the St Stephen’s Day raid of Thomond Park.

Leo Cullen has made 13 changes from last week and the eastern province’s remarkable strength in depth is once again highlighted by the fact they can recall internationals Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Luke McGrath, Josh van der Flier and Sean Cronin having won in Limerick with a supposed second-string side.

Add to that Leinster’s home form at their RDS citadel — the last side to leave the Ballsbridge venue with a regular season victory was Dragons back in February 2015 — and you can see why the odds are stacked heavily against Keane’s men.

Yet this is a fascinating inter-pro match-up for a variety of reasons.

Connacht’s recent resurgence, and the return of their heads-up style of play, coupled with Leinster’s entertaining brand of rugby, means this afternoon kick-off promises to be a thrilling contest in front of over 16,000 inside the RDS.

Both sides have named strong teams with a host of internationals involved while there is a real sense that Connacht arrive in the capital well-equipped to throw everything at Leinster in a bid to end their hoodoo at this venue.

The western province have won just three times in Dublin, the last of which came in 2002 when former Leinster player Mark McHugh kicked a last-gasp drop goal to snatch a 26-23 victory at Donnybrook, so the narrative in the build-up has been on creating history.

“The heads-up rugby that we’ve been playing over the last two weeks has given us a lot of confidence,” Jack Carty, who is currently the top points scorer in Europe this season with a haul of 53, says.

Jack Carty kicks a conversion Carty has been in great form recently. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“It’s something that we’ve been striving to do all year and there were certain situations where it was happening and a couple of occasions, Cardiff and Zebre, where it didn’t, but it was important that we stuck to that game plan.”

Not only are provincial bragging rights on the line but Connacht, even allowing for their promising run of form, are still playing catch up after their indifferent start to the season and sitting in fifth in Conference A, there is still work to do to close the gap on third-placed Toyota Cheetahs.

“We’ve been there or thereabouts in the last couple of years,” Carty says of their last few visits to the RDS.

“We always go up to the RDS trying to create a bit of history and today will be no different. Leinster will have their homework done on us. They’ll look at a few things but we’ll be going all guns blazing to get the win.”

Carty’s battle with Sexton will be fascinating, but also play a big part in deciding the outcome of the game.

It is just one of a number of key battles all over the pitch, with the in-form Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell lining up against Noel Reid and Garry Ringrose while Connacht know the importance of winning the back-row battle where John Muldoon will look to stamp his authority.

Leinster are also wary of the Connacht back three.

Keane has been able to largely select the same side as last time out but one of the changes in personnel he has made is the inclusion of Cian Kelleher for Niyi Adeolokun on the wing, as Tiernan O’Halloran and Matt Healy retain their places.

“I think the biggest thing for Connacht is that they were hit with a lot of injuries and it’s taken them a while to hit their stride,” Leinster backs coach Girvan Dempsey says.

“I think now we can see that they’ve got guys back, their back three looks extremely dangerous.

Johnny Sexton Sexton returns to captain Leinster this afternoon. Source: Ben Whitley/INPHO

“You saw over the last few weeks that they’re starting to get a lot more settled, there’s more clarity in how they want to play, so there’s not a massive change. I think they’ve adapted a few changes, they’re more of a kicking threat than they would have been a couple of years ago, so it is going to be a huge challenge and they are on form.

“To get that sort of result at home against Ulster, I know people will say it was a weakened Ulster side but the reality is that when you look at it on paper, it was a pretty strong side and Connacht looked very menacing in the first half.

“So that’s what we know, we have to be strong and can’t afford to give them a lead because they’re a difficult side to play against.”

Leinster, meanwhile, will be confident they can manage the game and win the battles up front to deny the Connacht backline the time and space to cause any damage, with Sexton’s return as captain a key factor in it all, even if Ross Byrne was superb against Munster.

“It’s a great place to be,” Dempsey adds.

At the turn of the year, Leinster find themselves in great shape and a sixth straight victory later would move them within striking distance of Scarlets in Conference B.

Even allowing for Connacht’s recent surge, it’s hard to see anyone stopping Cullen’s charges at the moment.

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Noel Reid
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (Capta)
9. Luke McGrath

1. Peter Dooley
2. Seán Cronin
3. Andrew Porter
4. Ross Molony
5. Ian Nagle
6. Dan Leavy
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Max Deegan

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Ed Byrne
18. Michael Bent
19. Mick Kearney
20. Scott Fardy
21. Nick McCarthy
22. Cathal Marsh
23. Rory O’Loughlin

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Bundee Aki
12. Tom Farrell
11. Matt Healy
10. Jack Carty
9. Kieran Marmion

1. Denis Coulson
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. James Cannon
6. Eoghan Masterson
7. Jarrad Butler
8. John Muldoon (captain)

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Peter McCabe
18. Conor Carey
19. Quinn Roux
20. Naulia Dawai
21. Caolin Blade
22. Eoin Griffin
23. Niyi Adeolokun

Referee: Ben Whitehouse (WRU).

The42 has just published its first book, Behind The Lines, a collection of some of the year’s best sports stories. Pick up your copy in Eason’s, or order it here today (€10):

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