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'The whole of Galway will be buzzing' - Leinster look to land first blow in Connacht

Leo Cullen’s side are firm favourites as the Champions Cup Round of 16 gets underway tonight.

Jack Carty captains Connacht against Leinster.
Jack Carty captains Connacht against Leinster.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

THE TOURNAMENT ORGANISERS reckon that having the second leg of these Champions Cup Round-of-16 ties at home is an advantage, hence the higher-seeded sides being away in the first leg.

So it is that Leinster are in Galway tonight as they and Connacht kick-off the first of these home-and-away affairs before the European competition returns to straight knock-out clashes from the quarter-finals onwards.

It’s a historic evening for Connacht [KO 8pm, BT Sport], who are playing their first knock-out game in the Champions Cup. Of course, the new format means more teams advancing from the pool stages than before but a fully sold-out 8,129 Sportsground underlines the excitement within the province.

There is probably a hint of trepidation in some quarters too, particularly after seeing how strong a starting XV and bench Leinster have named. Leo Cullen’s men warmed up for this tie by notching a bonus-point victory in Thomond Park last weekend.

Connacht got back to winning ways last time out, leaving it until late to seal the deal away to Benetton to keep their URC play-off hopes alive, but their form hasn’t been strong in recent times.

Last month’s heavy defeat away to Edinburgh was a low point in their season and it was followed by a big loss at home to Leinster. However, the latter result came after an early red card, and tonight’s visitors are convinced they will face a very different challenge.

“It’s a completely new game when it comes to European rugby,” says Leinster hooker Dan Sheehan.

“There’s extra seating being brought in, the whole of Galway will be buzzing for the game.

“So, I think it’s a completely different challenge. European rugby is completely different, even if it’s the same team you were playing against last week, it’s always going to be a step up.”

a-view-of-fans-watching-the-game The Sportsground will be full tonight. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Sheehan is part of a strong Leinster front row even without the injured Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher, as he starts in between Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong in the front row.

James Ryan, Ryan Baird, and Joe McCarthy are absent from the second row but Cullen can still call on the in-form Ross Molony and Josh Murphy, while the all-Ireland back row of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, and Jack Conan is a major strength.

As has tended to be the case before, Leinster have opted for stalwart Luke McGrath in the number nine shirt ahead of Ireland’s first-choice scrum-half, Jamison Gibson-Park, while captain Johnny Sexton returns to guide the team from out-half.

With Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose teaming up in midfield, James Lowe and Jimmy O’Brien offering form on the wings, and Hugo Keenan covering all bases from fullback, this is a serious Leinster team. The bench isn’t bad either, including seven internationals as it does.

Connacht welcome Bundee Aki back into the centre with open arms – his energy and rounded skillset will be crucial in their bid to upset the odds.

Friend has handed Gavin Thornbury his first start of the season after he made his return from a long-term shoulder injury last weekend, pairing him with Leva Fifita in a powerful, skillful second row.

Otherwise, Connacht are very much along expected lines and they will need plenty of impact from the likes of Abraham Papali’i, Caolin Blade, Sammy Arnold, and Tietie Tuimauga off the bench as Leinster look certain to push them hard for 80 minutes.

While Connacht’s form doesn’t bode well for their supporters’ hopes, Leinster have been readying themselves for the very best of Friend’s team.

gavin-thornbury Gavin Thornbury returns to the Connacht second row. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They have the ability to pull the rabbit out of the hat,” says Sheehan. “They’ve been a bit inconsistent over the year but you can see from their attack and the game that they want to play, if they get it right they’re extremely dangerous and straight away put a red flag on the game that if we don’t get out stuff right, we can be punished pretty quickly and we can end up chasing the game.

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“I think we have to expect it will be the full-noise Connacht coming at us and make sure that we’re on point.”

Everyone involved in this weekend’s games has been busy insisting that they haven’t even considered the second leg, but it certainly does loom large in the background.

Leinster’s plan will be to get out in front tonight and bring a decent lead back to Dublin for part twoso Connacht must produce something special here to avoid that predicated outcome and rattle Leinster’s self-belief before visiting the Aviva Stadium. 

It would be some feat to beat this Leinster team, packed with top-class players, so well-coached by Cullen, Stuart Lancaster and co., with variety in how they can attack teams, and driven by their determination to get back on top of the European mountain. 

Connacht:

  • 15. Tiernan O’Halloran
  • 14. John Porch
  • 13. Tom Farrell
  • 12. Bundee Aki
  • 11. Mack Hansen
  • 10. Jack Carty (captain)
  • 9. Kieran Marmion
  • 1. Matthew Burke
  • 2. Dave Heffernan
  • 3. Finlay Bealham
  • 4. Gavin Thornbury
  • 5. Leva Fifita
  • 6. Cian Prendergast
  • 7. Conor Oliver
  • 8. Jarrad Butler

Replacements

  • 16. Dylan Tierney-Martin
  • 17. Tietie Tuimauga
  • 18. Jack Aungier
  • 19. Oisín Dowling
  • 20. Abraham Papali’i
  • 21. Caolin Blade
  • 22. Conor Fitzgerald
  • 23. Sammy Arnold

Leinster:

  • 15. Hugo Keenan
  • 14. Jimmy O’Brien
  • 13. Garry Ringrose
  • 12. Robbie Henshaw
  • 11. James Lowe
  • 10. Johnny Sexton (Captain)
  • 9. Luke McGrath
  • 1. Cian Healy
  • 2. Dan Sheehan
  • 3. Tadhg Furlong
  • 4. Ross Molony
  • 5. Josh Murphy
  • 6. Caelan Doris
  • 7. Josh van der Flier
  • 8. Jack Conan

Replacements:

  • 16. James Tracy
  • 17. Ed Byrne
  • 18. Michael Ala’alatoa
  • 19. Devin Toner
  • 20. Max Deegan
  • 21. Jamison Gibson-Park
  • 22. Ross Byrne
  • 23. Ciarán Frawley

Referee: Karl Dickson [RFU].

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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