Three changes to Leinster team to face Connacht in Champions Cup

Jamison Gibson-Park, Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher make starting XV

Jamison Gibson-Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Leinster have restored Jamison Gibson-Park, Andrew Porter and Rónan Kelleher to their starting XV against Connacht in the second leg of the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 at the Aviva Stadium on Friday (kick-off 5.30pm – live on BT Sport and RTÉ Radio One).

Meanwhile, Andy Friend makes one change as Connacht also rotate at scrumhalf, with Caolin Blade named to start and Kieran Marmion on the bench.

Porter and Kelleher are thus restored alongside Tadhg Furlong in the first-choice Irish frontrow which began the Six Nations, with Kelleher making his first appearance since the second round game in Paris when he suffered a shoulder injury in the first half. It will be Porter's his first appearance since sustaining an ankle injury in the third-round game against Italy.

The trio are thus reunited as the starting frontrow for Leinster for the first time since the 89-7 pool win over Montpellier three months ago. Dan Sheehan drops to the bench, where Ed Byrne has been named ahead of Cian Healy.


Gibson-Park, who was yellow-carded for a high hit on Marmion in the first leg and had an ensuing citing dismissed, thus partners Johnny Sexton with Luke McGrath among the replacements, where Rhys Ruddock is also restored in place of Max Deegan.

In addition to the change at scrumhalf, there are two further alterations on the Connacht bench, with the inclusion of the fit-again Denis Buckley, and hooker Jonny Murphy. As with Leinster replacement Ciarán Frawley, Connacht's Conor Fitzgerald will make his 50th appearance for the province if called upon.

"Yeah it's huge," Leo Cullen admitted with regarding to having Porter, Kelleher and Furling back in harness. "All the lads trained towards the end of last week, and to bring Andrew and Rónan back in, that frontrow has worked together quite a bit and it's a great combination to have.

“Andrew, when he moved from tighthead to loosehead at the start of the season, he’s a remarkable character and was going incredibly well until the injury to his ankle.

“Rónan has been training a bit longer because he’s been able to do more, the two of them bring a lot of power in particular.”

Although Jordan Larmour has also returned to full training, Cullen said: “Jordan was a little unlucky, he could come back into the team next week but it’s great to have that power, it’s much needed.”

Although Leinster take a six-point lead into this second leg, Connacht struck first last week through a John Porch try, and Cullen admitted: "The obvious thing is the start – start the game well. Connacht had us under the pump when they scored the try at the start of the game.

“There were some parts of the game when we were strong, in the scrum in particular, it’s just trying to go after areas like that to establish dominance.

“It’s going to be a great contest again, both teams want to have a strong attacking intent and one of Connacht’s strengths is their phase attack and playing flat to the line, just defensively we have to be a bit sounder.

“It would be nice to get a good start to give us some control.”

“We have to make sure our players have that emotional control, it’s hugely important, the occasion is very important but we have to get to the pitch of the game and make sure we’re in the right headspace, and make sure we’re not over-aroused, I think that’s the right phrase.

“For us it’s a new game, a one-off, it’s just a knock-out game for us and yeah, it’s all in the balance really.

“It’s 0-0, we have five points to play with but it’s such a small margin.

“The guys have been here loads of times so there is that familiarity as well, but when you’re playing for your provincial team and are here representing all those people who have played a part getting these guys running out at the Aviva, that’s a huge thing for us.

Ticket sales are close to 30,000 with an attendance in excess of that figure anticipated.

“For us it’s about delivering a big performance for those people.

“It’s a great occasion but the provincial grounds are a bit different, the Aviva is our national ground but it’s great more people can go and there are still a few tickets left, it’s a great showcase and hopefully we can put on a big show tomorrow.

“It’s up to us to throw the kitchen sink back at them as well and defensively be able to shut them down.

“There were a few occasions we looked to be exposed and we’ve worked hard on that this week, but I’m sure Connacht have been working hard on things as well.

“In terms of Johnny and Jamison, they played together a lot during the Six Nations. We’ll see how the guys go, for us having that level of halfbacks off the bench is hugely important to us as well and you can see how we’ve mixed and matched those guys over the course of a few seasons.

“We’re blessed with the quality of those guys.”

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, Oisin Dowling, Abraham Papali'i, Kieran Marmion, Conor Fitzgerald, Sammy Arnold.

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times