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Leinster wary of Connacht's returning threats in RDS Christmas cracker

A sell-out crowd is expected in Dublin tonight as east meets west in the Pro14 inter-pro derby.

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, AND sub-plots abound in this Christmas cracker as the Leinster juggernaut — albeit in a different guise this week — bid to power on and extend their winning run and lead at the top of their Guinness Pro14 conference.

Back to the RDS, and back to league matters for the defending champions, but the big games keep rolling and the visit of a buoyant and ambitious Connacht outfit marks the start of another important block of festive fixtures.

Leo Cullen Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

As was expected, Leo Cullen has rung the changes in personnel — 12 in total — for this round 11 encounter and while the hosts will field a diluted side tonight [KO 7.45pm, eir Sport/Premier Sports], that is in no way a reflection of the significance of the first of three consecutive inter-pro derbies.

In fact, there is no such thing as a weak Leinster side these days, and certainly, a cursory glance down the team-sheet shows Cullen has fielded a potent mix of international experience, exciting talent and players high on motivation as they look to seize their chance. 

A 15-point cushion — and an eight-game Pro14 winning streak — at the top of Conference B may have offered Cullen a greater window for experimentation, but Leinster are fully aware of the threats Andy Friend’s Connacht will pose when they arrive in the capital later.

Coming off the back of five straight wins, the western province are not short on confidence and conviction and Friend’s selection is a signal of their intent, as Connacht look to record their first win over Leinster in Dublin since 2002.

While Leinster have used this weekend to rest many of their frontline internationals, Connacht come fully locked and loaded, and have their Ireland stars in tow, including Bundee Aki who is among the replacements after his wedding in New Zealand last weekend.

The visitors will have four former Leinster players — Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Gavin Thornbury and Paul Boyle — in their starting XV, and Cullen is particularly wary of those returning threats, who will all have points to prove against their native province.

“It’s a game that has a lot of threat for us always,” Cullen said yesterday, while also paying compliment to the work Friend has done since his summer arrival in Galway.

“We’ve had some very close games and some games where we have been well beaten, particularly down in Galway over the last 10 years or so. I know a lot of those guys are good, they have gone away and proved themselves in a different environment.

“When they come back to play Leinster they have a point to prove, always. There is always a bit of a danger in these games, like any week really but there is always something extra special in some of these particular fixtures.”

Kelleher and Farrell, in particular, have enjoyed standout breakthroughs at Connacht over the last 18 months.

Cullen added: “There are always players at Connacht who have passed through the doors at Leinster and they have a point to prove and that always makes them incredibly dangerous. 

Connacht's Tom Farrell Tom Farrell is one of four former Leinster players in the Connacht side. Source: Inpho/Billy Stickland

“We saw first-hand last season when we got beaten 47-10 in the Sportsgrounds what it means to them when they’re playing Leinster. It was a tough physical challenge earlier this year so yeah, it’s a tough challenge.”

Still, Leinster will be confident in their hand as they seek to continue their winning momentum and further enhance their strong record in inter-provincial games in recent times, having lost just one of their last nine derbies — that defeat being the humbling in Galway last April. 

Dan Leavy, Adam Byrne and Rory O’Loughlin are the three names retained from last week, as Cullen shuffles his deck and gives opportunities to players who impressed during the November international window.

One of those was Hugo Keenan, who is handed his third start of the campaign at fullback, while academy centre Conor O’Brien and highly-rated number eight Caelan Doris also start.

Doris is joined in the back row by Leavy and captain Rhys Ruddock, with Connacht’s selection of Jarrad Butler, Colby Fainga’a and Boyle suggesting Friend saw enough in Bath’s breakdown approach two weeks ago to feel his side can exploit a weakness.

“They probably looked at those Bath games and saw the success that Louw and Underhill had,” Leavy admitted.

They [Butler and Fainga'a] are two very similar players as well, both very strong on the ball and that is a tactic they will deploy against us so it’s up to us to make sure we look after the breakdown and don’t give them opportunities to get into the game with penalties, and build pressure.

It’s just one of several fascinating match-ups, the return of those players who came through the Leinster system adding another layer of intrigue to a fixture which has always entertained in recent years.

Of the 33 meetings between the provinces, Leinster boast a superior record with 24 wins and they’ll look to lean on their home support again this evening with all 18,500 tickets expected to be sold by kick-off.

The eastern province have lost just once at home in any tournament since the end of the 2016/17 season, while you have to go back 16 years for Connacht’s last win in Dublin. 

Incidentally, Cullen was part of the last Leinster side to lose to the westerners on home soil — a 26-23 defeat at Donnybrook in September 2002.

Leo Cullen Cullen speaking at yesterday's press conference. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

“I just always remember the feeling at the end of these games and the feeling that ‘I’m going to remember this one for a long time’ and ‘people are probably going to be reminding me of it in years to come,’” he said.

“I remember what it meant to the Connacht players at the time and being part of that team that loses to Connacht in Donnybrook at home.

“It’s the nature of these games, there’s something extra special about them, you need to make sure you prepare as well as possible for the game. I can’t remember that week’s preparation but I certainly remember the game and losing and that stays with you forever.

“We’ve got to make sure we get as much right as we possibly can to ensure that doesn’t happen to us tonight.” 

Leinster:

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

1. Peter Dooley 
2. Bryan Byrne 
3. Michael Bent 
4. Mick Kearney 
5. Scott Fardy 
6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
7. Dan Leavy 
8. Caelan Doris.

Replacements: 

16. Seán Cronin
17. Ed Byrne 
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony 
20. Max Deegan
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Noel Reid.

Connacht:

15. Tiernan O’Halloran
14. Cian Kelleher
13. Kyle Godwin
12. Tom Farrell
11. Darragh Leader
10. Jack Carty
9. Caolin Blade

1. Denis Buckley
2. Tom McCartney
3. Finlay Bealham
4. Ultan Dillane
5. Gavin Thornbury
6. Jarrad Butler (captain)
7. Colby Fainga’a
8. Paul Boyle.

Replacements:

16. Shane Delahunt
17. Peter McCabe
18. Dominic Robertson McCoy
19. James Cannon
20. Eoghan Masterson
21. James Mitchell
22. David Horwitz
23. Bundee Aki.  

Referee: George Clancy [IRFU].

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview another big weekend of rugby action and dissect the week’s main talking points.


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Ryan Bailey

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