Friday 24 March 2017

Prudent Leinster divide to conquer

Leinster star Brian O'Driscoll returns to the starting line-up to face Connacht in their Magners League encounter tomorrow night.
Leinster star Brian O'Driscoll returns to the starting line-up to face Connacht in their Magners League encounter tomorrow night.

Hugh Farrelly

WITH two Magners League games in three days to negotiate, Leinster coach Michael Cheika gets a chance to assess the strength in depth of his squad ahead of Saturday week's Heineken Cup semi-final meeting with Toulouse.

Having overcome the Ospreys last Friday to maintain their steady progress towards a home league play-off, it means three matches in a week, with Connacht next up at the Sportsground tomorrow night followed by the trip to Glasgow for Friday night's assignment.

The arduous nature of the week is accentuated by the airport shut-down, with the squad prepared to get the ferry to Scotland on Thursday in the event of flights being unavailable. It means that Cheika has effectively split his squad for the two matches, with tomorrow's team closer to the side that will face Toulouse and Friday's selection featuring a host of Academy and fringe players.

Brian O'Driscoll lines out in the centre against Connacht in a powerful selection that includes eight players who started the quarter-final win over Clermont Auvergne. Shaun Berne and Eoin Reddan form the half-back partnership that could face Toulouse if Jonathan Sexton has not recovered from his jaw injury, while first-choice props Stan Wright and CJ van der Linde flank South African Richard Strauss in the front-row.

There is also a start for Andrew Conway and a strong performance by the Blackrock youngster would put him in the frame for a Heineken Cup call-up, while Eoin O'Malley partners O'Driscoll in midfield.

Friday's team has a much more experimental look to it, with scrum-half Paul O'Donohue asked to take on the out-half duties outside Chris Keane and the Ruddock brothers Ciaran and Rhys at second-row and flanker respectively.

There is also a welcome start for second-row Trevor Hogan, who brings experience to the side alongside Ronnie McCormack, Bernard Jackman (who captains the team), Mike Ross and Stephen Keogh.

Keogh and O'Malley are the only players who start both games and given that Leinster are seven points clear of the Ospreys (who have played a game more) at the top of the table, Cheika has space to mix and match.

Connacht are still reeling from not being able to put away an under-strength Munster side on Sunday evening -- their first defeat at the Sportsground since September. However Cheika, with Leinster's recent narrow win at the RDS and last season's loss in Galway fresh in the memory, has a healthy respect for Michael Bradley's men.

"If we bring anything other than our 'A game', then we will struggle," said Cheika. "Every game between the two sides is a dogfight. They probably felt that they should have won the reverse fixture in the RDS.

"Connacht are one of the most improved teams in Magners League and they are in a strong position to win the Amlin Challenge Cup so we know what kind of challenge we face.

"There were a few sore bodies after the Ospreys win so how we manage our resources over the coming days will be hugely important in terms of how we progress in the Magners League, first and foremost.

"We made it very clear to each player that over these two games (Connacht and Glasgow) each player in the squad will have an opportunity which they will all relish I'm sure."

LEINSTER (v Connacht, tomorrow) -- 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.

LEINSTER (v Glasgow, Friday April 23) -- I Madigan; Simon Keogh, E O'Malley, F McFadden, M Keating; P O'Donohoe, C Keane; R McCormack, B Jackman (capt), M Ross; T Hogan, C Ruddock; R Ruddock, P Ryan, Stephen Keogh. Reps: J Harris-Wright, J McGrath, M Flanagan, D Ryan, D Moore, K Tonetti/B Macken, A Conway.

Irish Independent

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