URC: Leinster v Cardiff, RDS, Saturday, 5.05 – Live on RTÉ, Premier Sports and URC TV
Leo Cullen has entrusted the province’s unbeaten record to a young and exciting line-up supplemented by a sprinkling of experience in the absence of Leinster’s Ireland squad players, currently preparing for the Six Nations Championship in Portugal.
The nature of these matches in and around that tournament serve to offer an opportunity for academy and non-frontline players while affording supporters a glimpse into the future in terms of talent.
James Culhane, the Under-20 Six Nations Players of the tournament during Ireland’s Grand Slam winning campaign last season and his team-mate from that success Aitzol King, are set to make their Leinster senior debuts from the bench.
Culhane was consistently superb for Richie Murphy’s side and also made a favourable impression with Emerging Ireland in South Africa while King impressed while playing for a Leinster Development XV against the current Irish 20s team at Donnybrook earlier this month.
Chris Cosgrave swaps the blue of UCD for Leinster while right wing Max O’Reilly plays his first match for the province since last September. Liam Turner (2019) and Ben Brownlee (2022), both Grand Slam winners with the Irish 20s, form the midfield axis while Dave Kearney returns on the left wing.
Harry Byrne and Luke McGrath will look to bring the best out of the backline, given a reasonable platform. A young pack may look to Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony and captain, Rhys Ruddock for tactical direction, the in-form Max Deegan has shaken off the ankle injury that sidelined him recently while Scott Penny has reached a landmark 50th appearance for the province.
Brian Deeny, fresh from a European debut against Gloucester, Michael Milne and John McKee will look to make the most of a starting slot while another Irish 20s Grand Slam winner, outhalf Charlie Tector (2022), is set to win a third cap off the bench.
Their opponents Cardiff, are depleted by injury (11 players) and international commitments, contributing Rhys Carré, Dillon Lewis, Teddy Williams, Taulupe Faletau, Tomos Williams, Josh Adams, Mason Grady and Liam Williams to Warren Gatland’s Welsh squad.
Rhys Priestland moves to fullback, Rey Lee-Lo makes a timely return in midfield while Owen Lane has recovered from an ankle problem. Captain Josh Turnbull is back having missed the European game against Brive.
Cardiff head coach Dai Young said: “Leinster are always one of the very best teams in Europe so we know it is going to be a huge test for us. We have about 20 players missing and that leaves about 23 players to select from but we still have a lot of quality and I am confident in the team we have selected.
“We are acutely aware that we need to get everything right but there’s no reason why we can’t go out there, do that and win. We beat them here last year and I think we’ve got a blueprint. You certainly can’t sit back and see what they’ve got, because they’ve got a lot. You have to make sure that you get your game going and start well.”
The bookies have Leinster as 14-point favourites and while Cardiff have the capacity to punish the home side if they are sloppy or unfocused, that shouldn’t be the case.
LEINSTER: C Cosgrave; M O’Reilly, L Turner, B Brownlee, D Kearney; H Byrne, L McGrath; M Milne, J McKee, M Ala’alatoa; R Molony, B Deeny; R Ruddock (capt), S Penny, M Deegan.
Replacements: T McElroy, M Hanan, T Clarkson, J Culhane, W Connors, N McCarthy, C Tector, A King.
CARDIFF: R Priestland; O Lane, R Lee-Lo, B Thomas, J Harries; J Evans, L Williams; B Thyer, K Myhill, K Assiratti; L Timani, S Davies; J Turnbull (capt), J Botham, J Ratti.
Replacements: K Dacey, C Domachowski, W Davies-King, R Thornton, S Lewis-Hughes, E Bevan, A Summerhill, M Morgan.
Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).