Connacht will sense opportunity to record rare double against wounded Leinster

Andy Friend’s side impressed against Ulster last time out but struggle for consistency.

Connacht lock Gavin Thornbury.
Connacht lock Gavin Thornbury.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WE’VE SEEN THIS situation before. Connacht coming off a big win, stressing the need to back it up. 

And yes, beating Ulster in the Rainbow Cup should be seen as a big win, particularly given the nature of that victory up in Belfast two weeks ago, recovering a game that looked lost to snatch it at the death. Andy Friend’s side have come on the wrong side of those situations too often this season.

Instead they found a way turn it around. The question, as always, is can they back it up?

Cast your mind back to that superb performance against today’s opponents, Leinster [KO 7.35pm, TG4, eir Sport 1], earlier this year. The hope was that that result would inject some timely impetus into the second half of Connacht’s season. Instead they went and lost their next two games. The success over Ulster last time out ended a four-game losing streak.

That’s why both Friend and hooker Dave Heffernan stressed the need to build on the Ulster performance during Connacht’s press conference earlier this week.

They know they’ve put themselves in a strong position to challenge for the Rainbow Cup, which provides an opportunity to end another fractured season – eight wins, eight losses in the Pro14 – on a positive note.

And while the Rainbow Cup has its detractors, Connacht should have real ambition to win this tournament. There’s a reason Pep Guardiola always takes the Carabao Cup seriously, and it’s that old cliché of making winning a habit.

Leinster know that more than most and although they show 10 changes from the team which lost to La Rochelle last Sunday, they travel to Galway with three of Warren Gatland’s Lions squad in their matchday 23.  

Still, Connacht will eye up a much-changed Leinster pack – which sees only Jack Conan retained – and sense opportunity.

ciaran-frawley Ciarán Frawley is back in the Leinster team for the first time since March. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

They haven’t beaten Leinster twice in one season since 2015/16 but if they show the type of spirit evident against Ulster – and cut out some of the sloppy errors which too often creep into their game – they have the quality to record a rare double over Leo Cullen’s side.

Gavin Thornbury has been hugely impactful of late and can cause havoc again tonight, while Connacht also welcome back captain Jarrad Butler following a two month lay-off and Sammy Arnold is deemed fit enough to make the bench.

Leinster on the other hand will be happy to get back on the horse after the crushing disappointment of last weekend.

Their preparation for this game hasn’t been ideal. The fallout from La Rochelle will have occupied minds and suppressed the mood. And while being laid up in a plush south Dublin hotel sounds like a decent way to spend a week, those who travelled to France will have been pining for the comforts of home as they completed their mandatory quarantine.

They will feel they have a point to prove after back-to-back defeats to Munster and La Rochelle. Leinster haven’t lost three games in succession since 2015, and 10 of their matchday squad played in that January defeat to Connacht.

Then you have someone like Ciarán Frawley, who will be keen to seize his opportunity as he makes a first appearance in seven weeks. Frawley is a gifted playmaker and forms an exciting partnership with Garry Ringrose, who will be hurting after his Lions omission. 

The sub-plots in the Connacht side are just as intriguing. Tom Daly excelled against his former employers in January and will want to make a similar impact this time around. Hooker Dave Heffernan has made clear his ambition to catch Andy Farrell’s eye in these games while Abraham Papali’i, who starts on the bench, has just signed a new contract and is starting to hint at the massive potential he clearly possesses.

Yes, it’s only the Rainbow Cup, but these are two exciting teams, full of brilliant young talent, who like to get the ball in their hands and play. 

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Connacht will need to make a strong start and control their discipline. If they do get their noses in front, a formidable Leinster bench which includes Andrew Porter, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jordan Larmour and promising hooker Dan Sheehan should be enough to swing the momentum.

With a dry night forecast in Galway, it’s got all the ingredients to be another cracker. 

Connacht: John Porch; Peter Sullivan, Sean O’Brien, Tom Daly, Matt Healy; Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury; Eoghan Masterson, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler (captain).

Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Matthew Burke, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Cian Prendergast, Abraham Papali’i, Kieran Marmion, Sammy Arnold, Oran McNulty.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Cian Kelleher, Garry Ringrose, Ciarán Frawley, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (captain); Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Andrew Porter; Ross Molony, Scott Fardy; Josh Murphy, Scott Penny, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Ed Byrne, Tadhg Furlong, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Rowan Osborne, Rory O’Loughlin, Jordan Larmour. 

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ciarán Kennedy

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