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Dublin: 6 °C Friday 28 February, 2020
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'In the final we sat off and watched Connacht play': New cast for renewal of Leinster-Connacht rivalry

Connacht have won the last two meetings between the sides, but it’s whole new ball game in the RDS.

Image: James Crombie/INPHO

REVENGE MAY BE sweet, but professional rugby players on this island swear that they abstain from such satisfying tastes.

Leinster have suffered at Connacht’s hands and dancing feet in both of their most recent meetings, most notably the epic day out in Edinburgh for the Pro12 final last May. But on occasions like today’s inter-provincial clash between provinces east and west in the RDS (kick-off 17.15, Sky Sports) the absence of a revenge mission is much more believable than usual.

The proximity of the November internationals means that both sides are down some key front-liners. Throw in injuries, a couple of retirements and players moving on and there will be a grand total of just seven men starting this afternoon who also started in Edinburgh.

Like his captain Isa Nacewa and openside Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy was one of those who missed out on the final through injury, so he captures the vengeance-free Leinster mood:

“It’s hard watching your mates lose a big game like that and have nothing to do with it,” said Healy after the captain’s run at the RDS.

“I suppose the big burner for me over the last while coming into this game (was): thinking about what I can add and how much I can bring to the team and put us in a positive place rather than sitting on a sideline in a suit watching the game again.”

Connacht start with five players in common from their day in the sun last May, including Tiernan O’Halloran who returns as fullback after missing out on the Ireland squad for the November Tests.

Aside from Bundee Aki sitting on the bench and the absence of Ultan Dillane, Connacht’s XV is a relatively settled line-up coming in search of their first win in the RDS. As the cap totals below show, it’s a slightly different story for Leinster in the back-line.

“I think we’ve got a competitive team out,” says head coach Leo Cullen.

“It’s tough coming up against a team like Connacht who don’t get effected like we do. They have a very settled-looking team and squad and that’s probably been a real strength of theirs over the last number of years.

“It probably puts us at a disadvantage this week, but that’s the situation. We take a lot of pride in the fact we produce a lot of players for the national team, but with that comes some knock-on consequences. We want to have a competitive squad and we’re happy with the team we have.”

It is the job of players to move on from defeat quickly, but Cullen still speaks of his last two encounters with Connacht as though the sting has lingered. Especially from the Pro12 final when the head coach feels his defence gave Pat Lam’s counter-attacking stars too much room to manoeuvre.

Kieran Marmion celebrates scoring his side's first try Marmion beat Luke McGrath to the ball to ground the only try in the last regular season meeting between the sides. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The last time we played down in Galway it was 7 – 6, thriller, and we just couldn’t capitalise on some good field position and territory towards the end of the game in particular.

We were defensively pretty sound that day. For the try, they got us making a poor defensive read on the outside and the ball actually bounced into the area we had done scrums before the game. It just stuck and Marmion scored, took the chance well —  other than that we looked defensively pretty sound that day.

In the final, I just thought we sat off and watched Connacht play a little bit. It’s important that we’re a bit more aggressive in our defence. Because they’re a quality team, a lot of good pace across their back line in particular. They’re comfortable in the shape they play, their 2-4-2 (explained here) , and it’s proved very successful for them.”

“Over the last few weeks, we’ve made some steady progress with our attacking game. There is definitely room for growth there. It’s just about trying to impose our game on our opponents, regardless of who we’re playing.

“It happens to be Connacht this week, but we want to impose our style on the team we’re playing and make life difficult for them both when we have the ball, but also when we’re defending as well.”

Sean O'Brien Connacht's Sean O'Brien will get the chance to collide with his namesake in the back row. Source: Giuseppe Fama/INPHO

It looks like a terrific chance for Connacht to lay down another marker in a year of many landmark performances by taking a win in Dublin. Their early-season struggle has left them 12 points behind second-placed Leinster (with one game in hand), yet their form in recent weeks has proved that they are again capable of tearing strips off anybody.

With or without the protected international contingent, it promises to be another thrilling game between the league’s best two teams last season.

Leinster (caps in brackets)

15. Isa Nacewa (154) Capt.
14. Adam Byrne (4)
13. Rory O’Loughlin (4)
12. Noel Reid (66)
11. Barry Daly (1)
10. Joey Carbery (8)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (8)

1. Cian Healy (160)
2. Sean Cronin (120)
3. Mike Ross (142)
4. Mick Kearney (13)
5. Ian Nagle (4)
6. Dan Leavy (21)
7. Sean O’Brien (103)
8. Jack Conan (31)

Replacements:

16. James Tracy (23)
17. Peter Dooley (24)
18. Michael Bent (67)
19. Mike McCarthy (66)
20. Josh van der Flier (31)
21. Luke McGrath (57)
22. Ross Byrne (3)
23. Rob Kearney (181)

Connacht (caps in brackets)

15 Tiernan O’Halloran (107)
14 Niyi Adeolokun (39)
13 Peter Robb (20)
12 Craig Ronaldson (54)
11 Cian Kelleher (6)
10 Jack Carty (61)
9 Kieran Marmion (108)

1 JP Cooney (34)
2 Dave Heffernan (64)
3 Conor Carey (4)
4 Quinn Roux (36)
5 Andrew Browne (147)
6 Sean O’Brien (22)
7 Jake Heenan (39)
8 John Muldoon (282) Capt.

Replacements:

16 Shane Delahunt (20)
17 Dominic Robertson-McCoy (1)
18 Finlay Bealham (64)
19 James Cannon (0)
20 Eoin McKeon (92)
21 Caolin Blade (27)
22 Bundee Aki (47)
23 Stacey Ili (3)

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Sean Farrell

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