Leinster can call on reserves of strength
RABO DIRECT PRO12 LEAGUE Connacht v Leinster:IN THE midst of the Galway Oyster Festival and a few other minor sporting events, not least a certain replay in Dublin, Connacht host Leinster in one of their marque fixtures of the season and although neither appear to be at optimum level, it should be no less intriguing for all that. Over the years, for whatever reason and much to Michael Cheika’s bemusement, Leinster tend to struggle hereabouts more than Munster or Ulster.
In the circumstances, the Connacht stalwart Michael Swift could hardly have chosen a more auspicious occasion to become the first player in the league’s history to reach 150 games and he will be joined in the secondrow by his most regular partner in that time, Mike McCarthy.
Eric Elwood will be grateful for their experience, as he has made a number of changes for the visit of the back-to-back European champions, not all of them of his own choosing. It’s been so long since last season’s ever-present Gavin Duffy missed a game of any hue, much less one against Leinster (when he invariably rises to the occasion) that not even the Connacht faithful know who is his understudy.
In the event, Elwood has opted for the 19-year-old Robbie Henshaw, who made his first competitive start in Glasgow last week after three impressive run-outs off the bench. Nonetheless, it is a huge ask.
Another rising young indigenous star, Tiernan O’Halloran (who was also an option at full-back), returns to the wing along with Fetu’u Vainikolo, while Eoin Griffin joins Dave McSharry in the centre, and, encouragingly, the vastly-experienced Scottish international points machine Dan Parks has recovered from his hamstring injury to make his debut.
It is a measure of Nathan White’s standing that he has been chosen to lead the side in Duffy’s absence against his former employers, while Brett Wilkinson makes way for Denis Buckley as loosehead prop. Eoin McKeon, who started the last two weeks in the number eight position, moves to blindside flanker and joins Johnny O’Connor and George Naoupu in the backrow.
With Munster at the Aviva next weekend and their opening two Heineken Cup matches to follow, Leinster have taken something of a calculated gamble in resting the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Jonny Sexton from this proverbial banana skin.
Against that, Ireland international Rob Kearney will make his seasonal reappearance in a backline which also features Fergus McFadden and Isa Nacewa on the wings, with Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre after recovering from the bruised ribs which curtailed his evening last weekend against Edinburgh. Brendan Macken starts after his brace last week, with John Cooney at scrum-half.
In the pack, Shane Jennings leads the team and he is joined in the pack by Ben Marshall and Quinn Roux. It will be fascinating to see how the hugely-built young South African lock goes in just his second appearance for the province.
Unlike Cheika, Joe Schmidt has enjoyed four wins from four against Connacht. While Connacht have been seriously discommoded by injuries, a combination of injuries and the IRFU player welfare programme also means Leinster are far from full strength as they weigh up their options and keep some of their big guns under wraps for their set-to with Munster at the Aviva and their return to Europe.
Even so, as is ever the way between these two, they still have a mightily impressive bench to call upon which, especially when one weighs up a frontrow Irish international trio of Cian Healy, Seán Cronin and Mike Ross. Thus, when push comes to shove, that should sway things their way.
CONNACHT: R Henshaw; T O’Halloran, E Griffin, D McSharry, F Vainikolo; D Parks, K Marmion; D Buckley, A Flavin, N White (capt), M Swift, M McCarthy, E McKeon, J O’Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements(from): J Harris-Wright, B Wilkinson, R Loughney, D Gannon, W Faloon, D Moore, M Nikora, M Fifita.
LEINSTER: R Kearney; F McFadden, B Macken, G D’Arcy, I Nacewa; I Madigan, J Cooney; H van der Merwe, T Sexton, J Hagan, Q Roux, T Denton, B Marshall, S Jennings (capt), L Auva’a. Replacements: S Cronin, C Healy, M Ross, D Toner, J Murphy, L McGrath, N Reid, F Carr.
Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon(IRFU).
Recent meetings: (09-10) Leinster 17 Connacht 14; Connacht 27 Leinster 13; (10-11) Connacht 6 Leinster 18; Leinster 30 Connacht 8; (11-12) Leinster 30 Connacht 20; Connacht 13 Leinster 15.
Betting(Paddy Powers): 2/1 Connacht, 20/1 Draw, 2/5 Leinster. Handicap odds (Connacht + 6 pts) 10/11 Connacht, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Leinster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.