Thursday 8 December 2016

Blues must win at Dragons' den

Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor
Leinster head coach Matt O'Connor

You have to go back to 2005 for the last time Leinster finished a Celtic Rugby campaign outside the top four, but the prospects of it happening this season will loom larger if they don't get out of Newport this afternoon with a win. When you balance this with the meat in their sandwich, the Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille next Sunday, and having to go to Belfast to face Ulster five days later, it illustrates how little room they have for manoeuvre. After that, their Pro12 dates wrap up with Treviso at home and Edinburgh away.

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The picture cleared itself some more on Friday night when Ospreys took a bonus-point win away to Treviso and Glasgow did the same at home to Cardiff. The Ospreys' win means that, even with a bonus-point win in Newport, Leinster will go into their last three games still adrift of the top four.

Pressing as that sounds, Matt O'Connor had no choice but to rest the bulk of his starting team between last weekend's quarter-final against Bath and the Toulon game. Still, for today, he has a raft of experience between Zane Kirchner, Gordon D'Arcy, Jimmy Gopperth and Eoin Reddan in the backs, and a pack where seven of the eight are internationals. The bench too is decent enough, where only Ross Molony, with one game off the bench, is in the greenhorn category. O'Connor's opposite number Lyn Jones, always a man with a good line, put his own position in interesting perspective last week.

"We've got to use Leinster in a five-day turnaround as a really good training session, incorporating it in our preparation for Edinburgh," he said. "European rugby is nice and we will think about that next week but now it's about Leinster and we are not in the position where we can rest players. I've no doubt that Leinster will be targeting this game and likewise they will be targeting Toulon - which is the tougher game for them, I'm not sure."

We'll see, but allowing for what will be significantly different team-sheets, it would be bizarre if both games hit similar figures on the intensity index.

The Dragons will get stuck into O'Connor's team. Their form of late (three wins in a row) suggests Jones won't be too disappointed. Moreover they will be acutely aware that having beaten Leinster in the RDS in February it's likely to draw a heavy-handed response. The prospect of, for the first time, losing home and away to the Dragons is not too appealing to anyone in blue.

For a team whose last notable league finish was in 2005, when they were fourth, the Dragons are in the unusual position of having a European semi-final themselves, as Jones alluded to - albeit the Challenge Cup version, against Edinburgh, compared to Leinster's more glamorous affair against Toulon. Still, it's a measure of how well they are going. "It's going to be a real humdinger and a good test for us to see where we are against a quality outfit," Jones said. If that test comes back positive then Leinster can think about folding their tent.

Dragons: J Tovey; J Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, H Amos; D Jones, J Evans; P Price, T Rhys Thomas (capt), B Harris, J Thomas, C Hill, N Crosswell, T Faletau, N Cudd. Reps: R Buckley, L Garrett, D Way, M Screech, J Benjamin, L Jones, P Leach, G Jones.

Leinster: Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Te'o, G D'Arcy, D Fanning; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Moore, B Marshall, M McCarthy, D Ryan, J Conan, S Jennings (capt). Reps: A Dundon, M Bent, T Furlong, J Murphy, R Molony, L McGrath, N Reid, L Fitzgerald.

Referee: M Mitrea (Italy)

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