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Keenan and Connors 'deserve their chances' after strong Leinster form

Leo Cullen said Devin Toner was back in the starting XV for his lineout nous.

HUGO KEENAN AND Will Connors have yet to be involved in the Champions Cup for Leinster, so it’s safe to say that tomorrow’s Guinness Pro14 semi-final against Munster will be the biggest game of their careers so far.

The 24-year-old pair were consistently impressive performers for Leinster in the 2019/20 season before lockdown, both racking up over 600 minutes of action for Leo Cullen’s side in the Pro14.

hugo-keenan-and-will-connors Keenan and Connors get big starts tomorrow night. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Keenan was used at fullback by Leinster throughout but has plenty of experience on the right wing too, most recently against Ulster last weekend, so he will be confident about doing a good job tomorrow, when he and fellow back three men Jordan Larmour and James Lowe may have to defuse a few aerial bombs from Munster.

As for Connors, his excellent display against Ulster last weekend was very much a continuation of the form that earned him a place in Ireland’s Six Nations squad earlier this year. Indeed, the former North Kildare RFC player may even have earned his debut had the Italy match gone ahead.

So while Cullen and Stuart Lancaster deliberated over their selection calls for the Munster game in detail, they’re happy to back Keenan and Connors to start on the big occasion.

“I think those guys have done well,” said Cullen. “If you look back before we broke up and the lockdown began, Will had some outstanding performances for us and similar with Hugo.

“I thought the two of them backed it up well against Ulster last week, so they deserve their chances.

“There’s some very, very tight calls across the board, there’s not much in the selections. Josh van der Flier is very unlucky to miss out and a couple of other guys are unlucky to miss out across the team. Some of the coaches took a session this morning with guys who aren’t involved in the game and there’s lots of very good players that have missed out.

“You’re trying to get that balance in terms of rewarding guys who have put their hand up – A, in training and B, the previous form before we broke up. We’re also trying to make assessments on the two games we’ve seen so far.”

With van der Flier on the bench, Leinster have left quality back rows like Max Deegan, Rhys Ruddock, Josh Murphy, and Scott Penny out of their matchday 23 – a sign of the province’s depth.

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devin-toner-wins-a-line-out Devin Toner gets the nod ahead of Ryan Baird to run Leinster's lineout. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Cullen said Dan Leavy was close to being involved along with tighthead prop Tadhg Furlong, who has been sidelined with a back issue. Second row James Ryan, meanwhile, is raring to go and could feature next weekend if Leinster make the Pro14 final.

Tomorrow, 34-year-old Devin Toner and 36-year-old Scott Fardy team up in the second row for Leinster, with 21-year-old Ryan Baird – who impressed against Munster two weekends ago – in reserve.

“The experience those guys give, Dev and Scott,” said Cullen when asked how Leinster had made that decision. “Ryan will give us really good impact as well, whenever that is off the bench, particularly as the game starts to break up a little bit.

“It’s well documented we didn’t have a fantastic outing in the lineout [against Munster] and Dev’s the most experienced caller we have in the group.

“Dev went well against Ulster at the weekend, Scott gives good leadership and energy. We’re into the finals piece now very quickly and it’s a very close call.

“The lineout, again, it’s just making sure we get that quality launch. Hopefully, he [Toner] gives us that security – it helps when you’re 6ft 11ins.

“Scott, he’s a competitor for us. He’s been good in some of those big days over the last few years. Hopefully, his competitive instincts come to the fore.

“Ryan’s unlucky, we discussed doing things slightly differently but this is what we’ve gone for.”

- This article was updated at 9.01am on 4 September to correct ‘diffuse’ to ‘defuse’.

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