Carr can steer Connacht home
Iain Dowie calls it "bouncebackability". The capacity to make a successful and immediate recovery from disappointment is a challenge that presents itself regularly to sporting managers and is the one facing Connacht coach Michael Bradley against Leinster at their rearranged Magners League clash at the Sportsground this evening.
Last Sunday's defeat to Munster at the same venue (where the home side had been unbeaten since September) was an ankle tap on Connacht's surge towards unprecedented Heineken Cup qualification. Bradley's men had built up some impressive momentum in their quest to overtake a faltering Ulster in the league table while maintaining the impressive Challenge Cup progress which has taken Connacht undefeated to a home semi-final against Toulon.
Losing to an under-strength and developmental Munster outfit was certainly not part of the plan. Tony McGahan's bold yet pragmatic selection paid off handsomely in their 18-12 win but Connacht, who picked their strongest available side and had far more experience in their ranks, will have spent the intervening days wondering how they let this one get away from them.
Munster deserved their win after a performance of focus and intelligence but the home side, while producing some excellent passages of play, did not match that with the levels of ferocity we have become accustomed to. Perhaps it is a psychological issue. So accustomed to having to raise their game to take on stronger and better resourced opponents, going in as favourites against one of European rugby's heavyweights appeared to throw Connacht off their stride.
The upshot is that Connacht are still four points behind Ulster when they could have been sitting right on their coat-tails.
Tonight's clash is their game in hand and they need to stay within striking distance of their northern rivals with only the trip to Scarlets left on Sunday before their Ravenhill showdown in the last round of matches -- Ulster play Edinburgh in Murrayfield this Sunday in their penultimate game.
Leinster have no such worries, cruising towards a home semi-final play-off at the top of the league, and bring an international-laden side to Galway, including Brian O'Driscoll in midfield.
Centre Eoin O'Malley and winger Andrew Conway provide the youthful vigour but there is a rich seam of experience and quality running through the side from Girvan Dempsey at full-back, to first-choice props Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde and captain Shane Jennings in the back row.
Thus, Michael Cheika's men understandably go in as warm favourites and while the Leinster coach has the player resources to split his squad for tonight's match and Friday's Glasgow assignment, Bradley this week is like a man with one sachet of butter and three pieces of toast.
The situation is compounded by the number of knocks and niggles in his threadbare squad including influential scrum-half Frank Murphy who is not in the 22 for tonight's clash. Whether fully fit or not, a large chunk of players get the opportunity to get Sunday's frustration out of their systems immediately, including captain John Muldoon and influential No 8 George Naoupu; Miah Nikora and Conor O'Loughlin are at half-back while Ronan Loughney and Robbie Morris come into the front row.
Fionn Carr remains on the left wing -- where he faces a fascinating showdown with Conway -- and surely the priority must be to get him the ball in space as often as possible.
Carr is in superb form this season and watching him on Sunday was reminiscent of Simon Geoghegan's time in an Ireland jersey in the early to mid-1990s when "get the ball to the blondie fellah" was Irish supporters' frustrated and regular mantra.
Leinster's most impressive quality this season is their capacity to secure victories without blowing sides away, exhibiting a mental surety and refusal to panic which stands them in good stead for their daunting Heineken Cup semi-final assignment in Toulouse on Saturday week.
Dempsey is enjoying a run of matches due to Rob Kearney's injury issues and is playing as securely as ever at 15, displaying the type of calm authority that characterises this Leinster squad under Cheika.
"We're not hitting the highs with the manner of our victories," acknowledges Dempsey. "We're winning tight games and it takes a certain level of character to edge these tight matches but we know we can improve."
Logic decrees an away win but while, to an extent, Leinster are fulfilling a fixture and having a 'run out' ahead of bigger assignments, Connacht are back in familiar territory after Sunday's hiccup. Backs to the wall, written off and in need of a feral performance to keep their dreams alive -- it is the situation that suits them best.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; B Tuohy, T Nathan, A Wynne, F Carr; M Nikora, C O'Loughlin; R Loughney, S Cronin, R Morris; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon (capt), M McComish, G Naoupu. Reps: A Flavin, B Wilkinson, B Upton, A Browne, J O'Connor, K Campbell, I Keatley
LEINSTER -- G Dempsey; A Conway, B O'Driscoll, E O'Malley, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; S Wright, R Strauss, CJ van der Linde; N Hines, M O'Kelly; K McLaughlin, S Jennings (capt), Stephen Keogh. Reps: J Fogarty, C Healy, L Cullen, J Heaslip, P O'Donohoe, I Madigan, S Keogh.
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Connacht v Leinster,
Live, Setanta Ireland, 7.45