Leinster pretenders seek to lay down Euro marker
WITH a Pro12 home play-off semi-final already secured, and a Heineken Cup final looming, Leinster have understandably chosen to rest the majority of their front-liners for this evening's clash with the Dragons in Rodney Parade.
It is a side that contains no starters from last weekend's epic Heineken Cup semi-final win in Bordeaux, although there are several playing this evening (Dave Kearney, Eoin Reddan, Sean Cronin and Kevin McLaughlin), who will be hoping to force their way back into the starting line-up for the May 19 European decider in Twickenham.
For Kearney, in particular, there is a big opportunity with the news that Luke Fitzgerald will be sidelined for the rest of the season and his performance at full-back this evening carries serious audition prospects both for the remainder of Leinster's season and Ireland's trip to New Zealand.
McLaughlin captains the side and a big game against Dan Lydiate would put him back into the reckoning also.
His performance in the line-out will be especially relevant, given Leinster's difficulties there against Clermont, while Sean Cronin will continue to push himself forward in his ding-dong battle with Richardt Strauss at hooker.
Devin Toner was not involved in the Ireland squad meeting earlier this week and will not force his way past Leo Cullen and Brad Thorn in the second-row, but he has had a good season overall and continuing to add to his excellent line-out game with round-the-field contribution will do him no harm.
Likewise Ian Madigan, who is not going start ahead of Jonathan Sexton at out-half, but can keep himself in the frame for Ireland inclusion with another strong showing.
Dominic Ryan starts at openside and it is a pity that injury has truncated his season because his potential in a key position for Ireland is immense.
Unfortunately, there is little prospect of tight-head Jamie Hagan forcing his way into the Ireland reckoning at this stage after a bit-part season that continues in Rodney Parade, where he provides back-up to the solid scrummaging skills of Kiwi Nathan White.
Hagan is a player who needs regular matches to prosper and they have been in short supply since he opted to leave Connacht last year. Jack McGrath gets his shot on the far side of the scrum in a young selection, where the backline looks particularly callow.
Andrew Conway, Brendan Macken, Noel Reid and Fionn Carr are all exciting runners and what they lack in senior experience, they make up for in pace and verve.
Whether the overall combination will be enough to undo the Dragons at home is hard to call, as is always the case with dead-rubber fixtures. They have quality in the form of Lydiate, captain Luke Charteris and Toby Faletau, but have lost their last two home games and are also short on experience out wide where 17-year-old Hallam Amos at full-back.
Leinster have only lost once since September, against the Ospreys in March, and this young side will relish the opportunity to have a go -- which could pay dividends and add to the feel-good buzz surrounding the province.
DRAGONS -- H Amos; W Harries, A Hughes, A Smith, A Brew; L Robling, W Evans; N Williams, S Parry, N Buck; L Charteris (capt), R Sidoli; D Lydiate, L Evans, T Faletau. Reps: S Jones, P Price, D Way, J Groves, T Brown, J Evans, P Leach, J Dixon.
LEINSTER -- D Kearney; A Conway, B Macken, N Reid, F Carr; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, N White; D Toner, D Browne; K McLaughlin (capt), D Ryan, L Auva'a. Reps: A Dundon, H van der Merwe, J Hagan, M Flanagan, J Murphy, L McGrath, I Nacewa, D Hudson.
REF -- M Mitrea (Italy)