Leinster (26) v Connacht (21), Aviva Stadium, Friday, 5.30pm – Live on BT Sport 1. Live Blog at Irish Times Sport
In restricting them to a five-point lead in that vibrant first leg in Galway seven nights ago, and keeping the tie alive, Connacht may well have done Leinster a favour, or at any rate helped boost their coffers.
Ticket sales had been slow prior to the first leg, but have since increased to near the 30,000 mark, with an attendance in the region of 32-35,000 anticipated. Considering the bank holiday weekend that’s in it, that would be quite a turn out. This is also their first home game since February following a run of five successive away matches, of which the last four have all been provincial derbies.
At any rate, it certainly justifies the decision to move the tie to the Aviva.
Admittedly, it might not generate the same home ground advantage as would have been the case in a capacity RDS. Connacht were beaten 47-19 at the RDS last December, albeit they finally broke their duck there in January last year, but for which Andy Friend’s side would have gone into this second leg without having beating Leinster in the capital since September 2002.
Even so, the Aviva might still be a little less foreboding, not least as Connacht moved their URC home fixture there last October when beating Ulster by 36-11. They also beat Ulster there behind closed doors in August 2020.
However, the return from injury of Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher – which Leo Cullen described as "huge" – in addition to Jamison Gibson-Park being restored, means that Leinster kick-off with 11 of Ireland's preferred starting line-up all things being equal, as well as Robbie Henshaw in midfield and Dan Sheehan among seven internationals on the bench.
Save for Jordan Larmour, whom Cullen described as unlucky to miss out, and the sidelined James Ryan, the four-time European champions are pretty much at full strength.
True, with Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki in their ranks, so too are Connacht, with Caolin Blade preferred to start at scrumhalf ahead of Kieran Marmion in the only change from last week, while their bench has been strengthened by the return of Denis Buckley and Johnny Murphy. As they also showed last week, Connacht often add up to more than the sum of their parts.
They can take encouragement from going toe-to-toe with a locked and loaded Leinster over 80 frantic and punishing minutes last weekend. With Jack Carty pulling the strings, Aki at his talismanic best, Hansen seemingly everywhere in a performance that was worth the admission money alone and John Porch a free-running threat, Connacht's high-wire, on the gainline, attacking game stressed Leinster. They could reflect that they were also authors of their own downfall with inaccuracies and sometimes playing too much rugby in their own territory; something they are unlikely to repeat.
Yet whereas this knock-out tie is new territory for them, Leinster are old hands at this lark and are competing in their 32nd tie in this competition.
Naturally therefore, they are overwhelming 1-40 favourites (22 points on the handicap) to progress to their sixth quarter-final in a row and 17th in the last 20 seasons, and almost certainly away to Premiership leaders Leicester.
Leinster’s scrum turned the screw in the second half last week and with Porter and Kelleher back they will look to target that area again.
Connacht’s superbly crafted third-minute try for Porch also brought the home crowd into play last week and hence Cullen has also identified a strong start from his own side this time. If achieved, that could make it a long night for Connacht, but either way, a surface which Cullen described as “incredible” should suit two attack-minded teams.
Yet the one statistic that perhaps stands out above all others from the first leg is that Leinster carried for 590 metres as against Connacht's 382 metres. And it is their array of carriers – not least in the backrow of Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, and the in-form James Lowe – which tilts the tie their way, and that has also been enhanced by the return of Porter and Kelleher.
“I’m always nervous about these things because it means a lot to us,” said Cullen. “If you weren’t nervous, there would be something wrong with you. I was nervous last week, I’m nervous this week, so nothing really changes there. But nerves are part of it. They’re a good thing.”
"We love this tournament, and that's the reality. We love this tournament, we want to progress as far as we can, we treat every game very, very seriously. As you can see we were very upset with how things panned out earlier in the tournament for us," he added wryly in reference to losing their pool game against Montpellier off the pitch, "but we're here now in a knock-out game and it means so much to so many people.
“So we’ve just tried to do everything we can this week to ensure that we put in our best performance thus far this season.”
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O'Brien, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong; Ross Molony, Josh Murphy; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Ed Byrne, Michael Ala'alatoa, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Caolin Blade; Matthew Burke, Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham; Gavin Thornbury, Leva Fifita; Cian Pendergast, Conor Oliver, Jarrad Butler.
Replacements: Johnny Murphy, Denis Buckley, Jack Aungier, Oisín Dowling, Abraham Papali'i, Kieran Marmion, Conor Fitzgerald, Sammy Arnold.
Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU).
Results so far – Leinster: W 45-20 v Bath (h), L 0-28 v Montpellier (a) w/o, W 89-7 v Montpellier (h), W 64-7 v Bath (a), W 26-21 v Connacht (a).
Connacht: W 36-9 v Stade Francais (h), L 23-29 v Leicester (a), L 28-29 v Leicester (h), L 31-39 v Stade Francais (a), L 21-26 v Leinster (h).
Leading points scorers – Leinster: Ross Byrne 36. Connacht: Jack Carty 43.
Leading try scorers – Leinster: Jimmy O'Brien 5, Josh van der Flier, James Lowe 4 each, Jamison Gibson-Park, Dan Sheehan, Hugo Keenan 3 each. Connacht: John Porch 3.
Betting: 1-40 Leinster, 75-1 Draw, 18-1 Connacht. Handicap odds (Connacht + 22 pts) 10-11 Leinster, 18-1 Draw, 10-11 Connacht.
Forecast: Leinster to win.