Saturday 25 February 2017

Shift in power will be shown in huge derby

Lam's troops ready to show they are top dogs in battle for Pro12

Johnny O'Connor

Main: John Muldoon in action during training (SPORTSFILE)
Main: John Muldoon in action during training (SPORTSFILE)

This is the big one, and I hope both coaches allow their squads to show their full hand.

It's going to be a fantastic spectacle and there will be such a great atmosphere in the Sportsground. With how Connacht and Leinster have played this season, it's likely the play on the pitch will live up to its billing.

No one can argue Connacht are deserved league leaders after 17 rounds of rugby. This weekend is another opportunity to prove a point and get another big inter-provincial scalp.

Hopefully, Leo Cullen has the vast majority of his star names to choose from, and they rock up to Galway with their strongest 23.

At this stage of the season, the Six Nations is over so the international players should be allowed to play. And with Leinster out of the Champions Cup they should be placing all of their focus behind finishing top of the Pro12, and getting the easiest possible semi-final in the play-off.

Likewise for Connacht, they do have a Challenge Cup quarter-final against Grenoble, but winning this game must be paramount to lay down a marker with the play-offs getting closer and closer.

Some of the personal battles are mouthwatering, and for the first time in a long time, if ever, Connacht actually have more quality players than Leinster for this one.

Now it's a case that Leinster players wouldn't get into the Connacht starting 15. And that is testament to the work that has gone on at Connacht in recent seasons.

Pat Lam has done a lot of good work, but the other coaches must also be commended on their application. The likes of Jimmy Duffy has taken over from Dan McFarland and brought fresh new ideas; the Connacht scrum looks even stronger this season.

Then you have the guys who create these one-off moves that have split every defence Connacht played against this term. I've never seen a team to be more inventive, because Connacht haven't stolen these off a Super Rugby franchise or some other team.

These are all new ideas and they are so intricate. There must be so much detail to create a gap in the opposition defence, and with all of the work that goes on in training to get in right, it must be tremendously pleasing to see it working on the weekend.

Sizzling

Connacht have scored 49 Pro12 tries this season, that's 11 more than Leinster's total and there's no reason why Connacht won't have something up their sleeve to open Leinster up at least once tomorrow.

But where the attack has been sizzling, the defence hasn't hit those same high notes. Connacht have conceded a lot of silly points, so it will be interesting to see can they hold firm against Leinster.

But at the same time, if the likes of Garry Ringrose can lead Bundee Aki on a merry dance then more power to him. I don't see that happening. Connacht will get in their faces and be supremely physical. It will be all about hitting the line early and not allowing Leinster to play ball. Connacht have always had a big midfield this year, and whoever is in there, I'm sure they will have enough to silence Leinster in that area.

So it makes for a fascinating 80 minutes and one that I cannot wait to see. Connacht are on a roll, and I have a good feeling that Leinster could be next on the chopping block.

Connacht have had Leinster's number a few times in these derbies, even as recently as last season. But this one is different. A win here and Connacht would be well in front at the top of the table.

It's all about the play-offs from here on, well that and the Challenge Cup, but Connacht are well placed to actually win the Pro12. They have never been in this situation before and tomorrow will tell a lot about the character of the squad.

But these guys have proven themselves time and again this season. They bounced back from their injury-hit few months to steady the ship and it's remarkable how efficient they have been since then.

Tomorrow could be the one where they really clinch that semi-final spot, and it's so well deserved. Connacht are the best team in the Pro12 at the moment.

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