United Rugby Championship: Connacht v Leinster, Sportsground, Saturday , 7.35pm – Live on RTÉ2 and Premier Sports 1
The pandemic meant for a surfeit of interpros in order for rugby to keep going, but they haven’t lost any of their lustre. For the first time since Connacht hosted Toulouse in a Champions Cup game in January 2020, the Sportsground will have an extended 8,000-plus capacity with additional terracing at the Bohermore Road and College Road ends for Saturday night’s visit of Leinster.
The same will be true in a fortnight for the first of these sides’ two-legged Last 16 European clash but this first meeting in their trilogy over the next four weeks is a crunch stand-alone URC meeting.
Connacht have been stewing on their worst performance of the season when thrashed 56-8 in Edinburgh as their defence became disconnected and seemed to increasingly lack communication as players panicked and went solo.
On foot of that, Andy Friend wants to see real intent in their carrying and physicality at the breakdown while adhering to their attacking principles along with a vastly improved defensive effort.
The defeat has left them 10th in the table and four points outside the top eight with only five games remaining. Accordingly, Friend said: “There’s been no talk about the Champions Cup games because this is a massive fixture in its own right. Our backs are against the wall if we’re to reach the playoffs and with a massive crowd behind us I’m sure all 23 men will put in a performance I know they’re capable of.”
Friend and his coaching team have opted for seven changes from the side that lined out against Edinburgh. Denis Buckley, Niall Murray, Jarrad Butler, Kieran Marmion, Oran McNulty, Tom Farrell and Tiernan O'Halloran all come into the starting XV.
When the sides last met at the RDS in early December, it was Connacht’s misfortune that Leinster had just lost at home a week beforehand against Ulster, and the four-in-a-row champions and leaders are again smarting from a defeat by Ulster in Belfast last weekend.
The difference then was that Leo Cullen could re-enforce his side by restoring 10 internationals as well as Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher on the bench, whereas those two are injured and his Irish frontliners are absent.
By comparison, the only change from a week ago sees Ciarán Frawley restored to a reshuffled three-quarter line for his first game in six weeks due to a facial injury.
There's a potential debut off the bench for 20-year-old Academy back Chris Cosgrave, a versatile and natural footballing product of St Michael's who has been in good form for UCD in the AIL recently, while Ed Byrne and the Connacht-bound Josh Murphy are also restored to the bench.
Leinster hold a 30-10 head-to-head record in this competition over Connacht and have won six of the last seven meetings. Against that, Connacht have won both home derbies this season, beating Ulster at the Aviva Stadium and Munster in Galway, and their need is acute.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Tom Daly, Oran McNulty; Jack Carty (capt), Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan, Jack Aungier; Oisín Dowling, Niall Murray; Cian Prendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Jonny Murphy, Matthew Burke, Greg McGrath, Ultan Dillane, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Sammy Arnold, Diarmuid Kilgallen
LEINSTER: Jimmy O'Brien; Tommy O'Brien, Jamie Osborne, Ciarán Frawley, Rory O'Loughlin; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (capt); Peter Dooley, James Tracy, Michael Ala'alatoa; Ross Molony, Joe McCarthy; Rhys Ruddock, Scott Penny, Max Deegan.
Replacements: Seán Cronin, Ed Byrne, Thomas Clarkson, Josh Murphy, Martin Moloney, Nick McCarthy, David Hawkshaw, Chris Cosgrave
Referee: Chris Busby (IRFU).
Forecast: Leinster to win.