Ross gets chance to state case for Ireland
WITH the Six Nations over, Ireland's prospective summer tourists have a dwindling number of games to prove themselves to coach Declan Kidney, and today's Magners League clash between Leinster and Connacht at the RDS (4.30) represents one of those occasions.
Jonathan Sexton slots straight back in at out-half after starting Ireland's 23-20 defeat to Scotland last weekend. Sexton had a good Six Nations championship but was let down by poor place-kicking and today represents an opportunity to get back in the groove off the tee.
Ireland kicking coach Mark Tainton and Leinster counterpart Richie Murphy have the joint responsibility of getting Sexton back above an 80pc place-kicking return and you would back them to work together and achieve that, for Sexton has shown his proficiency in this regard many times for Leinster -- and for Ireland against South Africa in November.
The other significant selection sees Mike Ross start his second game in succession at tight-head prop. This would not seem such a big deal if it were not for Ireland's obvious scrummaging difficulties during the Six Nations and for the fact that of Ross' 11 Magners League appearances this season, only three have not been as a replacement for overseas props CJ van der Linde and Stan Wright.
Having coped comfortably with the considerable scrummaging threat that is Glasgow loose-head Jon Welsh last time out, Ross is up against fellow Ireland squad member Brett Wilkinson today -- Kidney and Ireland forwards coach Gert Smal will watch with interest.
Rob Kearney starts at full-back with a point to prove having been scapegoated in some quarters for last weekend's defeat. Kearney came off the bench after the early injury to Geordan Murphy and played very well until he was penalised at the death, allowing Scotland out-half Dan Parks to nail the winning kick. The penalty call by Jonathan Kaplan was harsh, as was the criticism that Kearney had more time to clear, which does not do justice to the quality and fervour of the Scottish chasers.
Today, Kearney will have plenty of chances to show his worth, both under the high ball and entering the line, with Girvan Dempsey providing further surety alongside him on the right wing.
Fergus McFadden is enjoying an excellent Magners League campaign although, with Sexton back, he is unlikely to have the opportunity to further showcase his place-kicking skills. McFadden starts at outside-centre next to Shaun Berne and that is a midfield combination with plenty of football and one which can do considerable damage with the right possession.
Isa Nacewa provides the attacking threat wide on the left and the backline is completed by Eoin Reddan at scrum-half -- another man out to make an impression after Tomas O'Leary's eye-catching Six Nations.
Ross packs down next to John Fogarty and Wright in the front row, with Leo Cullen (who many felt should have been called on against Scotland to help the ailing line-out) captaining the side from the second-row alongside Malcolm O'Kelly.
Stephen Keogh has played extremely well since the unfortunate injury to Sean O'Brien and continues at No 8, with Shane Jennings (another un-summoned sub last weekend) at open-side, while Ireland U-20 captain Rhys Ruddock makes his home debut at blindside flanker.
It's a powerful line-up and one that boasts seven probable starters from their strongest Heineken Cup line-up. It certainly looks too strong for Connacht, who have kept several big-hitters on the bench ahead of Friday's home clash against Edinburgh.
Ireland out-half Ian Keatley is among the replacements as is Sean Cronin -- the third member of the 'Croke Park three' next to Cullen and Jennings -- the hooker also saw no action against Scotland, despite Rory Best's throwing difficulties.
The visitors have quality at full-back, where Gavin Duffy captains the side and on the left wing where Fionn Carr has an opportunity to show his old province what they let go.
Frank Murphy is a good scrum-half who will enjoy renewing acquaintances with his old Munster colleague Reddan and flanker Johnny O'Connor will try and make life as difficult as possible for Jennings.
But overall, the home side look too potent and have not lost to Connacht in Dublin since 2002.
The visitors had an excellent victory over the Dragons in Galway on St Patrick's Day but will miss inspirational captain and flanker John Muldoon (whose place is taken by Mike McComish) and have not won back-to-back league matches since September 2006.
Leinster top the table on 38 points -- a whopping 22 ahead of bottom-placed Connacht -- and are on a run of 12 successive league victories at the RDS. That should be 13 after today and Connacht coach Michael Bradley would be thrilled if his team could escape with a losing bonus point.
From an Ireland perspective, big games from Kearney, Sexton, and Ross would do nicely, while McFadden, Ruddock and Carr can serve further notice of their long-term Irish potential.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; G Dempsey, F McFadden, S Berne, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; S Wright, J Fogarty, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), M O'Kelly; R Ruddock, S Jennings, S Keogh. Reps: B Jackman, CJ van der Linde, D Toner, P Ryan, Paul O'Donohoe, E O'Malley, S Keogh.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); B Tuohy, A Wynne, K Matthews, F Carr; M Nikora, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Morris; M McCarthy, B Upton; M McComish, J O'Connor, G Naoupu. Reps: S Cronin, J Hagan, M Swift, A Browne, C O'Loughlin, I Keatley, T Nathan.
REF -- J Garces (France).
Leinster v Connacht,
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