McLaughlin back for Leinster
Rugby - Leinster v Connacht:LET’S BE frank: this is not really Leinster versus Connacht. The Irish player management policy has seen to that. Still, there are league points to be had.
For Leinster, this fixture has some immediate positives in that Leinster coach Joe Schmidt can reward those who have been toiling away from the bright lights of the RDS on match day. In particular, Kevin McLaughlin returns to the backrow in place of Rhys Ruddock after injury curtailed his involvement these past seven months.
When the Six Nations rolled around last year McLaughlin’s hugely-encouraging displays, in the position previously held by the great Rocky Elsom, earned him the number six jersey against Italy.
Eleven months on and he finally returns but not before witnessing Ruddock being capped against Australia last summer and, of greater concern, the progress of fellow Gonzaga College graduate Dominic Ryan.
Ryan and Ruddock have gone back to the fridges this evening as Shane Jennings returns to the captaincy in a backrow that sees the seemingly unstoppable rise of Seán O’Brien continue at number eight.
The IRFU player management programme seems even more inexplicable considering O’Brien is not in the Ireland camp but maybe they feel he needs a continued run of games. Leinster are certainly not complaining as he seems to be doing an uncanny impression of Elsom during the 2009 campaign when man-of-the-match awards were usually sewn up by half-time.
O’Brien was too good for Ulster’s Springbok contingent to handle five days ago so it is unlikely 19-year-old Connacht Academy number eight Eoin McKeon will have enough physical development banked to make an impression.
Connacht are down to the bare bones in this department. McKeon comes in as a replacement for Ezra Taylor, who fractured a bone in his hand in the 16-12 defeat to Munster that leaves Connacht on a miserable eight-game losing streak. They also seem incapable of scoring a try but coach Eric Elwood, to his eternal credit, remains confident.
“We did well up there last year,” said Elwood. “We challenged them, asked questions of them. But everybody knows it is going to be a difficult task.
“They are on a crest of a wave and no matter what team puts on the blue jersey they will be formidable.”
Much of that impact last season came when Fionn Carr was put into space. Disappointingly, the seemingly Leinster-bound flyer is benched today but at least the exciting prospect of Eoin Griffin will be visible on the right wing.
“You’d like to think (the try problem) is going to turn sooner than later. At least we are creating the opportunities,” added Elwood.
Gavin Duffy remains absent due to a medial knee injury, while the other team leader, John Muldoon, is recovering from a badly broken arm. Seán Cronin, like eight Leinster players, is withheld by Ireland.
Elwood’s continued selection of the long-serving Keith Matthews as captain seems an innovative attempt to draw something extra from the core of his team. Their spirit has never been questioned but where exactly the attacking continuity is going to come from remains hard to see.
Leinster proved in the dismantling of Ulster that Elwood is correct: it doesn’t really matter who pulls on the blue jersey because right now Schmidt’s squad believe they can beat any team with any team.
As a result, there are other welcome returns alongside McLaughlin’s selection.
Andrew Conway gets an opportunity to reassert himself after a neck injury. Eoin O’Malley will be keen to let his dancing feet take up where they left off in Clermont before Aurelien Rougerie paid him the best compliment a young player can get from an established pro – a broken rib in a tackle.
Scrumhalf Paul O’Donohoe wins a long overdue 16th cap and if any player deserves 80 minutes it is he. Twice this season he has been sent on to the field while the starting Leinster scrumhalf has not been withdrawn.
Clint Newland is another provided with the opportunity to show his massive frame can add something to Leinster’s aspirations of ensuring no scrum ever hurts them again come the tail end of European competition.
All told, player for player, this should be a Leinster victory.
Even considering Connacht’s ability to step up their performance against their neighbours, they must be wondering how they can climb out of this rut.
Leinster are also wondering about something, wondering if they can keep this run of quality performances alive until the Heineken Cup resumes in a fortnight.
LEINSTER: I Nacewa; A Conway, E O’Malley, F McFadden, D Kearney; S Berne, P O’Donohoe; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, C Newland; N Hines, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings (capt), S O’Brien. Replacements: T Sexton, J McGrath, M Ross, E O’Donoghue, S Keogh, E Reddan, I Madigan, N Morris.
CONNACHT: T Nathan; E Griffin, I Keatley, K Matthews (capt), B Tuohy; M Nikora, C Willis; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; A Browne, J O’Connor, E McKeon. Replacements: D Murphy, R Ah You, D Rogers, B Upton, S Conneely, F Murphy, N Ta’auso, F Carr.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU)
Verdict: Leinster to win.
On TV: Live TG4