Ryan Baird, Will Connors and Caelan Doris.

Refreshed Leinster back row has added energy to Champions Cup charge

Today’s starting backrow shows two changes from the 2023 and 2022 finals against La Rochelle.

TWO OF THE Leinster back row lining out for today’s Champions Cup final meeting with Toulouse [KO 2.45pm, RTÉ/TNT Sports] will be starting a Champions Cup final for the first time.

While there hasn’t been a major overhaul of the Leinster squad this season, the evolution of their back row has been an interesting development over the course of the campaign.

For both the 2023 and 2022 deciders against La Rochelle, Leinster started with a backrow of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan.

At the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this afternoon, Van der Flier and Conan will both start on the bench while Doris – the starting blindside in those two La Rochelle finals – will take to the pitch with the number eight on his back, as Ryan Baird and Will Connors complete the back row.

Connors was one of the biggest selection calls facing Leo Cullen and his coaches this week and his role this season has been a key part of their route to the final. While in previous campaigns there has been a fairly settled feel to the Leinster starting team, this time around they have taken a more ‘horses for courses’ approach, with Connors the leading example.

He was a surprise inclusion for the opening pool game against La Rochelle and excelled on the day. Oddly, he didn’t feature again in the competition until the quarter-final win over the same opposition. 

The Kildare man had another good outing as the defending champions were sent packing but then didn’t make the matchday squad for the semi-final clash with Northampton Saints, as Van der Flier returned at openside and Leinster reverted back to a 5/3 bench.

leinsters-josh-van-der-flier-right-during-the-investec-champions-cup-quarter-final-match-at-the-aviva-stadium-dublin-picture-date-saturday-april-13-2024 Van der Flier was excellent off the bench against La Rochelle. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Connors has been dogged by injury across his career yet it still feels remarkable that today will represent just his fourth ever appearance in the Champions Cup.

His inclusion looks a sensible one. Connors’ superb chop-tackling technique made a difference in the two wins over La Rochelle this season but he offers more than that, too. He’s a strong ball-carrier, has smart hands and is effective around the rucks.

Baird’s inclusion was a safer bet. The dynamic 24-year-old spent the early years of his career moving between the second row and back row but this season he’s made the number six shirt his own – Baird has been ever-present at blindside throughout Leinster’s Champions Cup run.

Baird has added pace to the Leinster back row and is best known for the trademark rampaging runs – with his superbly-taken second-half try a decisive moment in the quarter-final clash with La Rochelle. 

Yet today the nuts and bolts of his game will take precedence over the highlight reel moments. With James Ryan named on the bench and Ross Molony not included in the matchday 23, Baird will be calling the lineout

It’s not the first time he’s been handed the responsibility and while Baird has put a lot of work into his lineout calling this year, this will be the biggest test he’s faced in that department.

Their promotion to the starting team offers Leinster something different this year. While Connors didn’t feature in either of the La Rochelle finals, Baird came off the bench for the final 21 minutes in Dublin 12 months ago.

caelan-doris-applauds-the-fans-after-the-game Doris has stepped up as Leinster captain this season. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

At number eight, Doris is no stranger to such pressure occasions. The Ballina native played 66 minutes of the 2022 loss to La Rochelle and went the full 80 against Ronan O’Gara’s men at Aviva Stadium last year.

He’s previously spoken about his disappointment around not delivering his best on the biggest days, but looks to be thriving again at number eight.

A key difference is that this time, he’ll lead the team as captain. The 26-year-old only captained the province for the first time in January but has held onto the role in the absence of injured co-captains Garry Ringrose and James Ryan, leading the province as skipper throughout the knockout rounds.

Doris has admitted he needed to hone his captaincy skills but looks fully comfortable in the role now.

Together with Baird and Connors, the three form a dynamic and skillful back row.

What supports them from the bench is just as exciting.

There was some debate about whether Leinster would opt for a 6/2 or 5/3 bench today but the former always seemed the more likely with Jacques Nienaber’s influence in mind.

jacques-nienaber Leinster coach Jacques Nienaber. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

The former South Africa coach was brought to the province to help them get over the line in Europe so it would have been surprising if they resisted the 6/2, given his track record and success with that approach.

The 6/2 offers Leinster real punch from their bench. Rónan Kelleher, Cian Healy and Michael Ala’alatoa are the front row support while James Ryan is a world class second row replacement.

And few teams could afford to keep players of the quality of Conan and Van der Flier out of the first XV. Conan made some huge defensive plays against Northampton while Van der Flier was excellent in that impact role against La Rochelle. To have such experience coming in fresh for the final quarter could be decisive. 

There’s quality all over this Leinster team but across the five backrow options in the matchday 23, the province enter the battle with a fine mix of skill, power and experience.

They could just prove to be the difference on the day.

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