URC: Connacht vs Leinster, The Sportsground, Saturday December 2nd, 7.35pm kick-off, live on RTÉ and Premier Sports
After last week’s derby at the Aviva, the World Cup recedes a little further into the rear view mirror with this interpro.
While these things are relevant, an extended capacity of 8,129 at the tightly-packed Galway venue will be bristling with expectation come kick-off every bit as much as the Aviva a week ago. Though forever the underdogs at the greyhound track, the atmosphere usually is special when Leinster come calling.
To add some additional spice to an appealing dish, Connacht have been boosted by the seasonal reappearance of Mack Hansen – a Clan Stand favourite indeed – in one of seven changes from last week’s filleting by the Bulls in the highveld.
Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan and Jack Aungier form a new front row, Cian Prendergast returns at blindside, as Oisín Dowling moves to the second row to play his 50th game. A refreshed Caolin Blade is restored to captain the side alongside the recalled JJ Hanrahan, while Byron Ralston moves to midfield.
Peter Wilkins again opts for a 6/2 split on the bench, meaning no place for Jack Carty, with Paul Boyle in line to make his seasonal return and on-loan Ulster scrumhalf Michael McDonald likely to make his debut.
Much of this is probably a means of guarding against fatigue up front for, whatever the public utterances from the Connacht camp, there have to be concerns about the effect of their trek back from Johannesburg via Abu Dhabi to land in Dublin last Monday en route to Galway.
Leo Cullen has also refreshed his side by making 14 changes from the win over Munster. Again, these things are relevant.
While clearly mindful of next week’s trek to La Rochelle in their Champions Cup grudge match, and it might seem excessive, Leinster’s strength in depth makes the 18-game URC campaign a more difficult juggling act for Cullen.
Robbie Henshaw is the only survivor from last week’s victory, and he switches to outside centre alongside Charlie Ngatai. The backline does look a little makeshift, with Ciarán Frawley reverting to fullback after impressively replacing Ross Byrne early on against Munster, and either side of him Rob Russell makes his first start of the season and Jamie Osborne reverts to the wing for the first time in a year.
Up front, Rónan Kelleher makes his 50th Leinster appearance while Scott Penny returns to captain the side. Despite another 6/2 split, perhaps with one on La Rochelle, there is again no place for Rhys Ruddock.
Connacht have won all eight competitive matches at the Sportsground in this calendar year but have not beaten Leinster since a 35-24 win at the RDS Arena in January 2021.
Leinster were hard pressed to win here 10-0 in the corresponding fixture last season but that was their sixth win in a row at the Sportsground in all competitions, and the previous two by margins of 38 and 29 points.
That’s generally been the way of things when Leinster come to Galway, either a commanding win or a fiercely competitive encounter, and while John Muldoon acknowledges that the records have always favoured the Blue Bandwagon, he maintained: “I don’t think I’ve ever thought any Connacht player had an issue with a blue jersey coming. I would have thought the perception outside of here is that Connacht grow a leg when Leinster come down.
“That could be partly my misconception of it, but I don’t think it matters. Derby games are special, everybody wants to play in them. Regardless of who they pick I think you’re going to get a performance from Connacht.”
“Over the years, regardless who came here, with a home crowd and a bit of blood in the water, you can always believe when you come into this place. And if you’ve ever wanted a game to come back after travel and everything else there’s nothing that focuses the mind like a derby, is there?”
It should be interesting.
Connacht: Tiernan O’Halloran; Mack Hansen, Byron Ralston, Cathal Forde, Diarmuid Kilgallen; JJ Hanrahan, Caolin Blade (capt); Peter Dooley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier; Darragh Murray, Oisin Dowling; Cian Prendergast, Shamus Hurley-Langton, Seán Jansen.
Replacements: Dylan Tierney-Martin, Denis Buckley, Finlay Bealham, Niall Murray, Paul Boyle, Michael McDonald, David Hawkshaw, Conor Oliver
Leinster: Ciarán Frawley; Rob Russell, Robbie Henshaw, Charlie Ngatai, Jamie Osborne; Harry Byrne, Ben Murphy; Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; Ryan Baird, Jason Jenkins; Max Deegan, Scott Penny (capt), James Culhane.
Replacements: Lee Barron, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Cormac Foley, Liam Turner, Will Connors
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)
Forecast: Connacht to win