Schmidt has troops on alert for visit of Connacht
THE Pro12 has understandably been flying well below the radar so far this season -- but there's nothing like a provincial derby to focus the minds.
With events in New Zealand dominating column inches, it would be easy to miss the fact that Connacht have gotten off to a rocket-fuelled start, while Leinster have struggled along manfully with an injury crisis.
They meet today at the RDS level on points, with the hosts in third and Connacht in fourth, but with Leinster in survival mode and the westerners on a mission to make hay while the World Cup stars are away.
Joe Schmidt has received a timely boost with the return of Kevin McLaughlin adding experience to his pack. Dominic Ryan returns to the bench, while Steve Sykes gets the nod ahead of former Connacht man Damian Browne in the second-row, who will want to make an impact off the bench.
It means the Heineken Cup champions have a more formidable look than they have had in recent weeks, but Eric Elwood's men always raise their game for their provincial rivals and feel that they have something to prove when they take on the perceived big guns.
"They definitely think that they do," Browne said. "It's a natural reaction, they almost feel that the games are opportunities, especially the Leinster and Munster games, and they seem to always have that extra little bit and do that little bit more in these games. So, maybe they do feel like they have a point to prove."
Usually in the build-up to these games, it's Connacht who get to play the poor-mouth, but Schmidt has been talking up his opponents in a big way. The New Zealander is without 14 internationals and feeling the pinch, but when it was put to him that Elwood was also dealing with a lot of new faces, he wasn't using his missing stars as an excuse.
"He's got 14 or 15 new players, but we've got 20 players out of the squad and there's a real contrast between what is available to squads at the moment," he said.
"I think Eric's doing a great job, I thought he did a great job last year as well. You can only work with what you've got, so if he has had to work with some shuffle-arounds, then he's done a pretty good job.
"They've had a few changes, but the core of their team is very similar. I think the luxury for Eric is that he's got a good core there who he can fit the new guys in around. The other luxury is that he's a smart man who is good at his job -- and that's an asset to anyone."
Elwood has picked a strong side, with just three changes from the team that earned a losing bonus-point at league leaders Ospreys last weekend.
Gavin Duffy makes the cut after a trip to the cryotherapy centre in Ennis this week, but Tiernan O'Halloran, who joined him, doesn't make it.
Hooker Ethienne Reynecke makes way for Adrian Flavin, Ray Ofisa comes in for TJ Anderson and former Ulster flyer Mark McCrea replaces O'Halloran as Brian Tuohy switches wings.
The westerners have been difficult to beat so far this campaign and picked up bonus points from Swansea and Edinburgh when they did come up just short. Along with Browne, Fionn Carr, Cillian Willis and Jamie Hagan are also facing their former club and will want to make an impact.
"It'll be a very strange experience. I've actually never played against an old team of mine in a competitive fixture, so I don't really know how I'll be feeling pre-match," said Galway native Browne, whose brother Andrew is out injured for Connacht at the moment.
"There's a few of the older guys like Michael Swift, Mike McCarthy, Johnny O'Connor -- I came through all the age grades with Johnny and our first games for Connacht were together -- Gav Duffy, John Muldoon, so the heart of the team is still there from when I was there. This is a game Johnny lives for if I remember correctly, so he'll be raring to go."
All of Connacht will and Leinster will need to be at their best to weather the storm and come away with the points. Verdict: Leinster
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; F Carr, E O'Malley, L Fitzgerald, D Kearney; I Madigan, C Willis; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, J Hagan; S Sykes, D Toner; K McLaughlin, R Ruddock (capt), L Auva'a. Reps: A Dundon, J McGrath, N White, D Browne, D Ryan, J Cooney, B Macken, D Hudson.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy (capt); M McCrea, E Griffin, H Fa'afili, B Tuohy; N O'Connor, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, A Flavin, D Rogers; M Swift, M McCarthy; J Muldoon, J O'Connor, R Ofisa. Reps: E Reynecke, R Loughney, R Ah You, D Gannon, TJ Anderson, P O'Donohoe, M Jarvis, D McSharry.
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (IRFU).
Leinster v Connacht,
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