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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 24 April, 2019
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Runaway leaders Leinster eye Pro14 home semi-final with plenty left to spare

Victory for Leo Cullen’s side against the Cheetahs tonight would clinch top spot in Conference B.

IT MAY ONLY be the first day of March, and although the unseasonably temperate climes this week possibly suggest otherwise, we have yet to hit the business end of the campaign. 

Yet, Leinster — in their bid to complete the double-double — have set a blistering pace atop the Pro14 Conference B standings and can this evening officially rubberstamp a home semi-final tie with plenty left to spare.

Paddy Patterson celebrates scoring a try with Ross Byrne Leinster are averaging five tries per game in the Pro14 this season. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

Last weekend’s nine-try rout of the Southern Kings, coupled with an Edinburgh defeat, ensured Leo Cullen’s men of a place in the league play-offs and now, with the Cheetahs in town, they can go one better at the RDS [KO 7.35pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports].

It will be one box emphatically ticked for the eastern province with five regular season games left on the schedule, but there is no suggestion Leinster will take their foot off the pedal as they seek to defend their Pro14 crown in Glasgow at the end of May.

All of that remains down the line as the focus is much narrower for all at UCD, starting with the visit of the Cheetahs — who have lost all of their previous five games on Irish soil — to Dublin 4 this evening, and another opportunity to maintain that winning momentum heading into a two-week break.

“We’re not that worried about the Conference and where we sit, it’s just about making sure we’re focused on our performance so we produce good habits,” Cullen says.

“It’s a competitive group at the moment so the players know what’s at stake. We’re coming to the end of a short block, the third game in this block and then there’s a bit more time off so it’s important players just deliver and give everything they have of themselves when they have this moment in the team.”

For what it’s worth, Leinster sit 22 points ahead of their closest rivals, Benetton, in Conference B having won 14 of their 16 Pro14 outings hitherto, with those two defeats coming on the road to Scarlets and Munster.

Their juggernaut form has been remarkable. Cullen’s side have won the last six games in both competitions since their inter-pro loss at Thomond Park, five of which have been bonus-points victories, while the province’s only defeat in their last 26 home games — between the RDS and Aviva Stadium — was the shock reversal to Benetton in April here last year. 

In the Pro14 this term, Leinster are averaging nearly 36 points and five tries per game, and their overall tally of 572 points and 82 tries is considerably more than the league’s next best, Munster on 462 and 64. 

A victory of any sorts tonight ensures they cannot be caught at the summit. 

“The competitiveness of the group hopefully drives our levels of performance,” Cullen continues. “It’s a great chance for guys again to showcase what they can do in the jersey.”

Cullen has made another nine changes to his starting XV for the round 17 encounter against the South African visitors, as Leinster continue to shuffle their resources to impressive effect after Ronan Kelleher last week became the 54th player they’ve used already this season. 

There is a more experienced look to tonight’s side with Rhys Ruddock returning from injury to captain the side in the back row, while Dave Kearney, Adam Byrne, Rory O’Loughlin, Jamison Gibson-Park, Michael Bent and Scott Fardy are among those also recalled. 

Max Deegan Max Deegan starts at seven. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In addition to the eight starting internationals, James Tracy, Andrew Porter and Noel Reid are named on the bench alongside the likes of Ed Byrne, Josh Murphy and Hugh O’Sullivan who will be seeking more game-time later in the evening. 

Ruddock’s return to fitness is welcome after the flanker suffered an untimely hamstring injury pre-Zebre at the start of this three-game block and he will be hoping to get valuable minutes under his belt to force his way back into Joe Schmidt’s plans for the final two rounds of the Six Nations.

Cullen said: “It has been a bit of a frustrating period for a number of players. Rhys was due to play against Zebre but picked up a bit of a knock in training that week which set him back. He’s worked hard to get himself back to give himself every chance [of playing in Six Nations].

“Rhys is such a key leader in the group, he spends so much time thinking about what’s best for the team and they are amazing qualities he has. He’s fit and raring to go.”

Fardy’s presence in the second row alongside Ross Molony comes at the end of a week in which the experienced Australian confirmed his decision to remain with Leinster into the 2019/20 season despite interest from elsewhere, including Japan.

“Scott has made an amazing impact since he has come in,” the Leinster head coach continued. “It feels like he has been here a long time, certainly longer than the 18 months.

We encouraged him to bring ideas, bring his thoughts to the party and he’s not shy on giving his opinion which is a positive for us. He has had a great impact on the field but also off the field as well. He’s a great influence around the dressing room and around our team meeting environment.

“He’s a great competitor for us and adds to so many different facets to our game, the way we’re trying to play and the experience he has built up. It’s great news that he has decided to sign on again as he’s had plenty of interest I’m sure because lots of people see the impact he has made here.”

Kearney has shaken off his own injury concerns to start at fullback while Byrne, having trained with Schmidt’s Ireland in recent weeks, makes his 50th Leinster appearance on the right wing, meaning Fergus McFadden switches to the left.

O’Loughlin will be striving to continue his strong form after coming off the bench to score a late try last week as he partners Conor O’Brien in midfield, with the Mullingar native growing in stature week-on-week during his breakthrough season. The 22-year-old has already made 11 appearances this term, scoring five tries.

Adam Byrne and Leo Cullen Leinster head coach Cullen and Adam Byrne. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In the half-backs, Gibson-Park resumes his partnership with out-half Byrne and in the front row, Peter Dooley is given another starting opportunity at tighthead alongside Bryan Byrne and Bent. 

Ruddock’s return to the engine room sees Murphy drop to the bench, but Max Deegan and Caelan Doris continue at seven and eight respectively, the latter Leinster’s leading try-scorer in the Pro14 this season with six scores.

With four weeks before Leinster’s next home game — the Champions Cup quarter-final against Ulster — Cullen is hoping for a big crowd at the RDS as his side look to round off this block with another statement win.

“With so much rugby going on at the moment, it was great to have such a positive crowd again at the RDS and hopefully we get another big crowd tomorrow because it means a lot to the guys to play in front of people they know,” he added.

“That connection the team has had with the support this year has been something very, very positive and hopefully, that’s something we can build upon as we enter the final part of the season where there is so much at stake on most of the weekends we play on.” 

Leinster:

15. Dave Kearney 
14. Adam Byrne 
13. Rory O’Loughlin 
12. Conor O’Brien 
11. Fergus McFadden 
10. Ross Byrne 
9. Jamison Gibson-Park 

1. Peter Dooley
2. Bryan Byrne 
3. Michael Bent 
4. Ross Molony 
5. Scott Fardy 
6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
7. Max Deegan 
8. Caelan Doris 

Replacements:

16. James Tracy 
17: Ed Byrne
18: Andrew Porter 
19: Mick Kearney 
20: Josh Murphy 
21: Hugh O’Sullivan
22: Noel Reid 
23: Barry Daly.

Cheetahs:

15. Louis Fouche
14. William Small-Smith
13. Benhard Janse van Rensburg
12. Dries Swanepoel
11. Rabz Axwane
10. Tian Schoeman
9. Tian Meyer

1. Ox Nche
2. Reinach Venter
3. Aranos Coetzee
4. Walt Steenkamp
5. JP du Preez
6. Gerhard Olivier
7. Abongile Nonkontwana
8. Junior Pokomela.

Replacements:

16. Jacques du Toit 
17. Charles Marais 
18. Luan de Bruin 
19. Sintu Manjezi 
20. Marnus van der Merwe 
21. Henco Venter 
22. Rudy Paige 
23. Shaun Venter.

Referee: Nigel Owens [WRU]. 

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Ryan Bailey

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