Return of Ireland group a boost for Leinster trip to Connacht
Henshaw, McGrath, Healy and Porter all make a return to the starting XV for in-form visitors
Robbie Henshaw: Ireland international will start at centre (with Joe Tomane) for Leinster against his former club Connacht in Galway. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Connacht v Leinster, Sportsground 7.35pm, (Live TG4/eir Sport)
After five wins from five Leinster’s Joe Tomane said this week “this is probably the part where we define our season”.
Playing Connacht in Galway and the perception of the aristocratic metropolitans arriving will always give this meeting an edge. But the former Wallaby is correct as Leinster hope to build a winning platform before their European campaign.
The reality is Leinster generally have it their way against Connacht in previous meetings but by no means always. In April 2018 Connacht won 47-10 with seven tries.
In 2016 they beat the Dublin side 7-6 and in 2014 won 10-9. That’s three from the last 10 matches and enough for coach Leo Cullen to begin the loading process this week with six of his World Cup players all anxious to get into a winning groove again.
To that end and a weather forecast that predicts a sunny day with a 10 per cent chance of rain means a decent pitch and shouldn’t necessitate Leinster to repeat their ‘epic’ 3-0 win in Italy a few weeks ago.
Hugo Keenan has recovered from an ankle injury and starts at fullback with Rob Kearney eyeing a run at some stage from the bench. Rhys Ruddock is beside him, both of them certain to play some role with European Champions Cup action and Benetton due in the RDS next Saturday.
The four returned from Japan who are starting are Robbie Henshaw in the centre, scrumhalf Luke McGrath and the two props Cian Healy and Andrew Porter on the tight side.
That’s a strong front row but Connacht will meet them with an experienced trio, Denis Buckley and Finlay Bealham at loosehead and tighthead and Tom McCartney at hooker.
Connacht head coach Andy Friend has opted to spring Bundee Aki from the bench although his other World Cup player, outhalf Jack Carty, starts the game going head to head with Ross Byrne. Carty is playing his first match since Ireland’s win over Russia in Japan and he forms a half back partnership with Caolin Blade.
Tomane partners Henshaw in the Leinster centre and there’s no sign of Garry Ringrose this week with McGrath and Byrne the halfback partnership. Lock Devin Toner, today’s most capped Leinster player with 235 caps, joins captain Scott Fardy with Josh Murphy, Will Connors and Max Deegan the starting backrow.
“We are happy with the start we have made in the PRO14 with four wins in a row,” said Friend. “What is even more satisfying is the depth we have already displayed, with 35 players already used in the opening five games. With Jack Carty, Bundee Aki and Sean O’Brien all coming back in this week, that number will hopefully go to 38.”
“We obviously face another huge challenge this weekend against Leinster but our challenge is to just maintain the consistency we have seen over the past few weeks both at home and away. We take huge pride in our home record, with just one loss in 13 games and we expect a massive crowd again on Friday night”, he added.
There is no place this week for Dave Kearney, who, along with James Lowe scored twice last week against Dragons. Kearney has five tries so far this season. Apart from their 0-3 scoreline away to Zebre, Leinster have been a scoring machine with two 50-point wins, a 40-point win and a 30-point win.
The meeting is of two teams with strong forward momentum. Connacht have quickly moved on from their opening defeat to Scarlets and since then they have grown in stature.
Carty is certain to provide some vision and creativity and even in Japan his method was evident. A different type of player to Byrne, he will try to make things happen and has the skill set to do it.
Byrne plays a more controlled game and is sometimes underrated for it. He’s also more steely on the pitch than he is generally credited for. But it should be an intriguing contrast of styles, at least from the outhalves, both of them wanting to show something positive to new Ireland coach Andy Farrell.
Leinster are favourites which won’t change a thing because they always are. But Connacht will meet them eye to eye. That’s the thing about going to Galway, Connacht inflate. They always do and in this instance have to if they want to win.
CONNACHT: D Leader, N Adeolokun, T Farrell, P Robb, S Fitzgerald, J Carty, C Blade; D Buckley, T McCartney, F Bealham, C Gallagher, J Maksymiw, E Masterson, J Butler (C), P Boyle. Replacements: D Heffernan, M Burke, D Robertson-McCoy, S O’Brien, C Fainga’a, K Marmion, B Aki, K Godwin.
LEINSTER: H Keenan; A Byrne, R Henshaw, J Tomane, J Lowe; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, R Kelleher. A Porter, D Toner (235), S Fardy, J Murphy, W Connors, M Deegan. Replacements: J Tracy, E Byrne, M Bent, R Molony, R Ruddock, J Gibson-Park, C Frawley, R Kearney
Referee: S Gallagher (IRFU)