Despite their absentees, determined Leinster capable of stopping the rot
It seems like a lifetime ago now but way back in September 2010 Leinster lost three of their opening four games of the season. It was the start of the Joe Schmidt era and a few scaremongers were already calling for the genial Kiwi’s head.
Schmidt, having since sewn two gold stars onto the provincial jersey, can laugh about it now. However, four defeats on the bounce would signify a serious downturn in fortunes for the European champions.
The manner of back-to-back defeats to ASM Clermont Auvergne, swiftly followed by Ulster beating them in Belfast was just about acceptable.
Defeat tonight, however, at home to a Connacht side that stuffed them 34-6 at the start of the campaign, regardless of the players on show, would be the low point of a hugely successful tenure for Schmidt in Dublin. It is unthinkable really.
Connacht are not at full strength either with Mike McCarthy held back by the IRFU player programme; so the Leinster-bound lock spared a meeting with the team he joins in the summer. Some international players have been released, probably, just enough for Leinster to get by. Fergus McFadden is on the wing, Michael Bent is at tighthead with Mike Ross as cover, while Leo Cullen is held in reserve should Devin Toner and Ben Marshall struggle against tougher beef like Michael Swift and George Naoupu.
Considering the importance of this game to Leinster’s season, Ireland’s pre-Six Nations camp in Carton House has this year come at a potentially dreadful moment.
The IRFU confirmed last night Kevin McLaughlin was not in the Ireland camp (he was overlooked in November) but the Leinster Branch was unable to confirm if he was injured. His absence has put the onus on others to do the unseen, brutal work he has been doing.
Shane Jennings is joined in the backrow by Rhys Ruddock and Jordi Murphy with Dominic Ryan on the bench.
The continued absence of Isa Nacewa also provides an equally big opportunity for Andrew Conway at fullback. Still only 21, Conway must be frustrated to see Ulster’s Craig Gilroy and Munster’s Simon Zebo zip past him onto the international stage this year.
Injury has contributed but after a run of game time, he has admitted the need to reach the standards set by fellow speedsters sooner rather than later.
“From my own perspective, it has been great to get a run of games under my belt this year,” said Conway. “I’m picking up a lot of experience and that was a big target for me at the start of the year. But from a personal point of view I don’t feel as though I’ve hit my stride yet.”
His opposite number for Connacht, Robbie Henshaw, has already been name checked by Declan Kidney so, along with other Leinster second-stringers, that stride must be found this evening.But there are potential weaknesses. Aaron Dundon is in for the injured Richardt Strauss at hooker while the former Leinster reserve, Jason Harris-Wright, is beginning to nail down the number two slot in Connacht.
Nathan White’s return as the visiting captain should add to an interesting night of scrums for referee John Lacey. The former Munster winger has made an impressive transition into the official ranks but it is at scrum-time that a young referee must be most vigilant.
If it comes down to a tight affair, then Leinster will be in trouble. Ian Madigan outclassed Paddy Jackson in Ravenhill last week but Dan Parks is whole different standard of tactical nous.
Still, Leinster should be better, even if a 15-point handicap in Connacht’s favour by the bookmakers seems generous, Providing the disruption to their squad is not too great, Leinster should stop the rot.
Not many teams can survive the loss of Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, McLaughlin, Eoin Reddan and Gordon D’Arcy yet improve upon an eight-point defeat.
They should still stop the rut but if Parks, Swift, White, Johnny O’Connor and the rest arrive in the right frame of mind we could have a tight contest.
LEINSTER: A Conway; F McFadden, B Macken, A Goodman, F Carr; I Madigan, I Boss; H van der Merwe, A Dundon, M Bent; B Marshall, D Toner; R Ruddock, S Jennings (capt), J Murphy. Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Ross, L Cullen, D Ryan, J Cooney, N Reid, A Byrne.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; D Poolman, E Griffin, D McSharry, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, J Harris-Wright, N White (capt); M Swift, G Naoupu; A Browne, J O’Connor, E McKeon. Replacements: E Reynecke, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, M Kearney, E Grace, P O’Donohoe, M Jarvis, T O’Halloran. Referee: John Lacey (IRFU). Verdict: Leinster to win.