Muldoon to make grand last stand as he bows out of Connacht

Pro14 preview: Captain’s final game for province will provide a poignant season finale

John Muldoon with the Connacht Rugby squad training at the Sportsground in Galway on Tuesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

John Muldoon with the Connacht Rugby squad training at the Sportsground in Galway on Tuesday. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Connacht v Leinster, The Sportsground, Saturday, 3.05pm. TV: TG4.

As dead rubbers go, this should be quite lively. When John Muldoon leads out Connacht for the last time on his 327th and final appearance for the province, a full house of 8,000 is anticipated for this poignant seasonal finale in his Galway stomping ground.

To commemorate his career and finish a disappointing season on a high will give the Connacht players all the motivation in the world. As for Leinster, buoyed by their filleting of the Scarlets to reach a fourth European Champions Cup final, competing for places as they seek silverware on two fronts, the same will be true.

For all the talk of Leinster needing at least a bonus point to ensure a home semi-final in the Guinness Pro14 a fortnight hence (possibly against Munster), the truth is that to all intents and purposes they are already there. Even if they were to take nothing from this game, and the Scarlets were to win with a bonus point away to the Dragons at the same time, the Welsh regions would also need to make up over 126 points in the difference. That ain’t going to happen.

Connacht come into this game on the back of three defeats, the latest of which, a 35-22 defeat to Glasgow, rather summed up their maddeningly inconsistent season. After a bright start, they fell away badly, seemed utterly devoid of belief, before finishing with a flourish.

Five changes

Kieran Keane makes five changes to the starting line-up, with Tiernan O’Halloran restored to the back three which accounted for Connacht’s three tries in the final against Leinster two seasons ago, as is Tom Farrell, with Bundee Aki switching to inside centre.

Up front, Shane Delahunty and Gavin Thornbury return at hook and lock, as does the man himself in his familiar number eight role, having been afforded a rare cameo off the bench in Glasgow.

“It’s my final time to throw on the green jersey and I just want to do the lads justice before I bow out at the Sportsground,” said Muldoon. “It has actually crept up on me and I have had mixed emotions this week when I have gone into training with the lads.

“It’s been bittersweet getting ready for this game against Leinster. It has built up nicely towards a game against a phenomenal team, and they were outstanding in their Champions Cup win over Scarlets again last weekend. It certainly won’t be easy to finish my career against them, but I am looking forward to getting stuck into my last game for my province.”

Connacht are seeking an historic trio of home wins in the same campaign over their provincial rivals

Leinster are actually odds-on to complete a Euro/Pro14 double and, eyeing both prizes, not surprisingly name a totally changed starting XV from the line-up that kicked off their 38-16 win over the Scarlets. The bench is promoted en bloc from that game save for Jordan Larmour, who is again amongst the replacements, while Seán Cronin, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy and Jamison Gibson-Park back up last week’s efforts from the bench.

Historic trio

Connacht are seeking an historic trio of home wins in the same campaign over their provincial rivals, but Leinster are looking to complete six interpro wins from six. They’ve tripped up here seven times in this competition, and are favoured to complete back-to- back doubles since that defeat in the 2016 final in Murrayfield.

Oddly, Leinster have only won one of their last four Pro12 games, at home to Zebre. Last time out in this competition they deservedly lost at home to Benetton, and it is both a reflection of that performance, and their strength in depth, that only six of that starting XV is retained, with three of them switching positions.

Having played at out-half against Benetton, his first in the number 10 jersey for Leinster this season, Joey Carbery reverts to full-back, where has made his previous seven starts for the province this season. The competition’s leading try-scorer on 11, Barry Daly, switches to the right wing, while Max Deegan shifts to blindside flanker.

Compared to that outing, James Tracy, Mick Kearney, Peadar Timmins, Jack Conan, Nick McCarthy, Ross Byrne and Tom Daly return, as does James Lowe. Given he must be straining on the leash after being idle for the last two weeks, Leinster certainly oughtn’t to lack for firepower or enthusiasm.

CONNACHT: Tiernan O’Halloran; Niyi Adeolokun, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham, Gavin Thornbury, Quinn Roux, Eoin McKeon, Jarrad Butler, John Muldoon (capt).

Replacements: Tom McCartney, Peter McCabe, Conor Carey, Ultan Dillane, Eoghan Masterson, Caolin Blade, Craig Ronaldson, Darragh Leader.

LEINSTER: Joey Carbery; Barry Daly, Tom Daly, Noel Reid, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Nick McCarthy; Jack McGrath (capt), James Tracy, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Mick Kearney, Max Deegan, Peadar Timmins, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Seán Cronin, Cian Healy, Michael Bent, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jordan Larmour, Adam Byrne.

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 35th competition game)

Overall head-to-head: Played 31. Connacht 8 wins, Leinster 23 wins.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

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Après Match actor Risteárd Cooper’s first foray into the murky world of padded shorts, chafing thighs and electrolytes was triggered by his decision to complete the Paris2Nice cycle in September in aid of Spinal Injuries Ireland.

 If you’re not going to Bilbao, he is hosting a special Champions Cup Final lunch at the Ballsbridge Hotel on May 12th, including drinks reception, three-course lunch, analysis from Gordon D’Arcy, Brent Pope and Paul Wallace and, of course, le match live from Bilbao at 16:45. All proceeds to Spinal Injuries Ireland. Tickets €100 or €850 for table of 10 at spinalinjuries.ie/events.

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