RugbyMatch Preview

Much-changed Leinster enter Lions’ den with top seed spot on their minds

Leo Cullen’s squad rotation sees 13 changes from the Champions Cup win over La Rochelle

URC: Lions v Leinster, Emirates Airline Park, Saturday, 2.0 Irish time – Live on RTÉ and Premier Sports

Previous seasons when Leinster had a stash of points to play around as a buffer to their closest pursuers in the United Rugby Championship table at this stage of the season don’t apply to the current campaign, where there is less wriggle room to absorb any defeats if they are to preserve a stated goal of earning a number one seeding through the playoffs.

The first of two matches in South Africa takes them to Johannesburg where the Lions await with less than Christian intentions come kick-off. Ciarán Frawley and Jason Jenkins are the only survivors from the Leinster starting team that beat La Rochelle in the Champions Cup quarter-final, as head coach Leo Cullen opts for squad rotation.

Frawley is named at fullback, Andrew Osborne, younger brother of Jamie, wins a second cap on the left wing, while Charlie Ngatai has recovered from a long-standing calf injury. He last played against Sale Sharks in December.

Jenkins is the only survivor in a pack that includes Diarmuid Mangan, who will make his first start for the province. Scott Penny captains the team. Replacement scrumhalf Cormac Foley is back following a shoulder issue while Rhys Ruddock is set for a sixth appearance this season and a fifth off the bench having racked up just 142 minutes.


The bench also includes former Under-20 Grand Slam winners John McKee, Michael Milne, Sam Prendergast, and Ben Brownlee.

The Lions are a more formidable side at home, which is reflected in the win column and start this game as favourites – four points on the handicap – despite coming off the back of a couple of defeats. Former Springboks centre and now Lions defence coach Jacques Fourie admitted: “We were disappointing against Ospreys and Benetton, but we are back home now, and we needed to reset ourselves.

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“There are no second chances and making the top eight is non-negotiable. To do that we need to win all our home games and we need consistency – in terms of how we want to play and what our brand is – we need to get that right every week.”

Fourie doesn’t buy into the fact that Leinster’s decision to rest 13 starters from the La Rochelle win would make them vulnerable.

“They will be well prepared and will be a big challenge for us. If you have a look at the game we played last season, I think with 10 minutes to go we were still ahead and the second-string guys that they brought [on] won that game.

“They have such good depth in their squad, so it doesn’t matter what team they bring. Most of their second-string guys would walk into any other first team in this competition. So, the squad they have got is really strong.”

Leinster will hope that on a weekend when they sold out Croke Park for the European semi-final against the Northampton Saints on Saturday, May 4th, that they match the achievement of last season and declaw the Lions.

LIONS: Q Horn; R Kriel, E Cronje, M Louw (capt), E van der Merwe; S Nohamba, M van den Berg; M Naude, PJ Botha, R Dreyer; W Alberts, R Delport; JC Pretorius, E Tshituka, F Horn.

Replacements: J Visagie, JP Smith, A Ntlabakanye, R Nothnagel, S Sangweni, N Steyn, J Hendrikse, H van Wyk.

LEINSTER: C Frawley; R Russell, L Turner, C Ngatai, A Osborne; H Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, L Barron, T Clarkson; B Deeny, J Jenkins; D Mangan, S Penny (capt), M Deegan.

Replacements: J McKee, M Milne, M Ala’alatoa, R Molony, R Ruddock, C Foley, S Prendergast, B Brownlee.

Referee: G Gnecchi (Italy).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer