Connacht v Leinster, Saturday, 5.15pm (Live TG4 & Eir Sport)
Forget the road ahead. Ignore the Irish rugby version of El Clasico, when Joey Carbery's Munster visit Dublin next week, pay no heed to looming European action, this provincial gathering promises plenty of animosity.
Eleven of this evening’s Connacht squad either came through the Leinster schools system or ended up in Galway after being released by the champions.
Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell and Paul Boyle didn't make the grade, Matt Healy and Craig Ronaldson arrived out west via Lansdowne, Niyi Adeolokun was noticed in Trinity while Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (both Blackrock), Robin Copeland (Kilkenny College) and Seán O'Brien (Roscrea) were educated across the divide. There was also Quinn Roux's forgettable three years in Dublin.
Motivation is hardly an issue. On either end. Last April, just before gathering all that silverware, Leinster suffered a 47-10 trimming in Galway.
“Had a look [at that game] this morning just to see how Connacht play against Leinster,” said new coach Andy Friend. “There was a lot to play for that day, John Muldoon’s last game, but that’s last year – we can’t get hung up thinking that’s going happen again, we got to make it happen. We are a different team this year, we got to turn up at the Sportsground like we did [against Scarlets].”
Neither does Leo Cullen have any interest in reliving that experience with only Robbie Henshaw, Dan Leavy and James Ryan sat down from what looks their strongest team.
Leavy and Ryan both underwent return-to-play protocols following head knocks during last Saturday’s filleting of Edinburgh.
The bookmakers had some scrambling to do when the strength of Cullen’s starting XV became apparent on Friday morning. Connacht’s favourites tag took a pendulum swing on handicap betting when word filtered out.
Everyone in Irish rugby will be pleased to see the other Seán O’Brien back on the bench as Josh van der Flier gets an opportunity to salvage the ground lost when tearing knee ligaments in Paris last February. Van der Flier was the Ireland seven that day. In the meantime, Leavy has become the best openside in Europe.
Jack Conan will have grasped the importance of breaking the gainline now O’Brien is strapped up again. Max Deegan and Caelan Doris are presumably travelling with the group as neither made the A team. These men are why Boyle, the 2017 Ireland under-20s captain, decamped to Connacht. The explosive 21-year-old from Gorey makes the bench behind Copeland.
There are so many interesting match-ups. Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath have been left in no doubt of the standard required as Ulster’s John Cooney makes repeated overtures to become Conor Murray’s formal understudy.
How about some midfield collisions?
Joe Tomane faces Bundee Aki – so physically imposing against Scarlets – and Farrell is offered a cut off Garry Ringrose.
Jack Carty gets to compare his game management with the best in the world.
“I’ve only seen Jack this year,” said Friend, “but the Jack Carty I’ve seen is an impressive man who is growing in confidence with every game. He’s got an amazing skill set and we are giving him licence to use that.
“Jack goes about his business in a quiet unassuming way but you know he is there. There are different personalities but you need that in a team too. You know Bundee is around because of his personality. Jack sort of slides under the radar but the way he is playing we know he will have a massive influence.”
Conan, Tomane, Rhys Ruddock, whoever, will charge down his channel the moment Aki disappears into a ruck. See if the quiet man stands up to giants like Johnny Sexton always does.
Sexton’s continued selection indicates Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will dilute their team to face Munster at the Aviva Stadium next Saturday as they seek to strike the right balance for Wasps in the Champions Cup opener six days later.
Besides the aforementioned trio – Henshaw, Leavy and Ryan – this looks like Leinster’s European side.
The season is alive.
CONNACHT: Tiernan O'Halloran; Cian Kelleher, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Dave Heffernan (capt), Finlay Bealham; Ultan Dillane, Quinn Roux; Seán O'Brien, Colby Fainga'a, Robin Copeland. Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, James Cannon, Paul Boyle, Caolin Blade, Craig Ronaldson, Niyi Adeolokun.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Joe Tomane, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Devin Toner, Scott Fardy; Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Seán O'Brien, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne, Rory O'Loughlin.
Referee: John Lacey (IRFU).
Overall head to head: played 32, Connacht won 9, Leinster 23.
Last season: Leinster 21-18 Connacht; Connacht 47-10 Leinster.
Betting: Leinster +6 10/11, Connacht -6 10/11
Forecast: Leinster win.