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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 14 July, 2020
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Painful memories ensure Leinster will not take their foot off the pedal

There is no shortage of incentive for the province’s fringe players against Benetton at the RDS tonight.

AS THE FRANTIC scramble for play-off places continues below them, Leinster enter into a two-game block with the hard work done and the pressure off, but Leo Cullen’s side remain fully focused on building winning momentum.

With a home semi-final already secured, the visit of Benetton to the RDS [KO 7.45pm, TG4/eir Sport] has allowed Leinster to rotate their resources and preserve energy ahead of the serious business to come, while also giving squad players a chance to stake their claim for selection.

Noel Reid runs in a try Noel Reid starts at 10 tonight. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

There is no doubt Cullen has more than one eye on the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final against Toulouse later this month by making 13 changes to his starting XV for tonight’s league clash, but the head coach insists this is no dead rubber.

Firstly, Leinster are cognisant of maintaining the integrity of the league, with their final three regular-season games still carrying significance for their opponents and those teams jostling for positions around them, while there is no shortage of incentive for the players handed starting opportunities. 

While Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be relatively firm in their mind at this stage as to which way they are leaning for the last four showdown with Toulouse, the door is not fully closed for those who can impress over the next two weekends.

Take the back row, for example, where the loss of Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier has suddenly narrowed Leinster’s options at openside and puts Max Deegan — who starts tonight at seven — firmly in the selection conversation for the big games to come.

James Lowe will be desperate to remind management of his worth as a match-winner on the wing, after the Kiwi winger missed out against Ulster last weekend because of a recent shoulder injury and, primarily, the ‘non-European player’ ruling.

Having started the season in breathtaking fashion with eight tries, including braces against Munster and Wasps, Lowe has played just twice since his red card at Thomond Park over Christmas and will need a big performance in this two-game audition window to force Cullen into a selection rethink after Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney performed well last week. 

The same can be said about Jack McGrath at the end of the week his summer move to Ulster was signed and sealed, after the loosehead’s slide to third-choice behind Cian Healy and Ed Byrne was confirmed last weekend. He’ll have more than a point to prove here.

Scott Fardy and Luke McGrath, who captains Leinster, are the only players retained from last Saturday’s starting XV, with Barry Daly, Fergus McFadden, Joe Tomane, Noel Reid, Andrew Porter and James Tracy among those drafted in.

“I think there is a reward for winning this game,” Fardy said, dismissing the notion there is nothing on the line for Leinster tonight. 

“We’re concentrating on our next role, our next job and if guys play well, they’re going to be playing in other big games next year so that’s the reward you get.

“Every single guy on the team sheet this week has got an opportunity to put himself in position to play in those big games come the end of the year and not only that but we’re playing in the RDS, which is something we all love doing, and we’re looking forward to playing in front of our home fans.”

Jack McGrath Jack McGrath is back in the starting team. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Leinster struggled to maintain their lofty standard of performance through the final stages of last season having raced into a commanding lead at the top of their conference, slipping to some uncharacteristic defeats during the run-in, including a rare home loss to Benetton last April.

That shock 17-15 reversal was the last time Leinster were beaten at home, either at the RDS or Aviva Stadium, with Cullen’s side winning all but one of their last 28 games in Dublin and the head coach wants his side to remain focused through to the business end of the campaign. 

“We’ll go fully committed because for us as a group, the Connacht game [from last May] sticks in the memory,” he said. “We want to set the players up to do well. No-one wants to set them up to go out and get beaten heavily because the scars last.

“For us, we’ll keep driving the competition. We have Treviso, Glasgow and Ulster as well, but in those three games everyone has lots to play for, and it’s going to be a real scramble for those teams. We’ll be going hard at these games to win to give a full account of ourselves.”

As for Benetton, there is still plenty left on the line for the Italians as they chase a first-ever play-off berth and Kieran Crowley has made eight changes to the side that were beaten by Connacht last time out, with Italian internationals Jayden Hayward, Marco Zanon, Luca Morisi and Tommaso Allan all restored to the backline. 

Six of the returning players started against Ireland in the Six Nations last month, including captain and influential out-half Allan, while there is experience and international pedigree on the Benetton bench in the form of Simone Ferrari and scrum-half Tito Tebaldi.

Given the number of changes Leinster have made, and Benetton’s greater need, the visitors’ 13-point handicap with the bookmakers appears to be generous, particularly when you consider their defeat to Connacht in Galway in the last round ended a nine-game unbeaten run in all competitions.

Cullen is understandably wary of the threat Crowley’s side pose.

“It is a dangerous one for us,” he admits. “It was dangerous last year as well. The losing bonus-point was the point that got us a home semi-final last year, avoiding having to play in that play-off game the week before the Champions Cup final, after getting nothing down in Galway.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at the RDS yesterday. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“They have a huge amount of depth in their group. They’ve had good consistency of performance. They defend well, they’re hard to break down. They have big men that occupy space and are physical, very aggressive and have a good set-piece.

“They are a well put together team that play a brand of rugby that’s quite hard to break down for us as an attacking team. For us defensively, they have a lot of threats, a lot of guys who can change the game, their back three in particular, a lot of pace and power there. 

“For us, we need to understand to do our things well which is a challenge because there are changes and you are trying to build cohesion in a short period of time. That is the challenge for us. It is going to be a big test. 

“It is a proper test in a proper environment against a well-organised, well-coached team. It’s going to be good for guys to say ‘pick me’ because they are going to be really tested.” 

Leinster:

15. Barry Daly
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Conor O’Brien
12. Joe Tomane
11. James Lowe
10. Noel Reid
9. Luke McGrath (captain)

1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Andrew Porter
4. Mick Kearney
5. Scott Fardy
6. Josh Murphy
7. Max Deegan
8. Caelan Doris.

Replacements:

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Peter Dooley
18. Michael Bent
19. Jack Dunne
20. Scott Penny
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Jimmy O’Brien.

Benetton:

15. Jayden Hayward
14. Ratuva Tavuyara
13. Marco Zanon
12. Luca Morisi
11. Monty Ioane
10. Tommaso Allan (captain)
9. Dewaldt Duvenage

1. Nicola Quaglio
2. Luca Bigi
3. Marco Riccioni
4. Irné Herbst
5. Federico Ruzza
6. Sebastian Negri
7. Abraham Steyn
8. Toa Halafihi.

Replacements:

16. Tomas Baravalle
17. Derrick Appiah
18. Simone Ferrari
19. Marco Lazzaroni
20. Giovanni Pettinelli
21. Tito Tebaldi
22. Antonio Rizzi
23. Alberto Sgarbi.

Referee: Nigel Owens [Wales]. 

Gavan Casey and Ryan Bailey are joined by Bernard Jackman to look back on a thrilling weekend of European rugby on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

Subscribe to our new podcast, The42 Rugby Weekly, here:

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Ryan Bailey

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