Cheika ready for cocky Connacht
THERE was a move away from the usual lip-service paid to interprovincial derbies at the Leinster squad announcement yesterday.
Invariably, nice things are uttered about Connacht when they come to town regardless of their form, but Michael Cheika paid the Westerners the ultimate compliment when he recalled Michael Bradley's comments in the wake of their shock single-point victory over Leinster in the Sportsground last season.
"I think there was a pretty pointed moment last season after they beat us," said the Australian.
"The coach came out and said they clearly target the Leinster fixtures as wins. So, they obviously feel they can beat us. He said it out in public. He was obviously pretty happy with himself when they beat us down there and he came out and said it on the telly.
"So, they obviously believe they can beat us. We have to react to that because that's not how we want teams to approach us. We want them to be worried about us."
To be up the noses of the reigning Heineken Cup champions is new territory for Connacht, who are enjoying a reasonable run of form in the twilight of Bradley's reign as boss. And with Leinster expected to name a reasonably inexperienced, if talented, side for Saturday's meeting in the RDS, Cheika feels Connacht can travel without trepidation.
"Obviously, Connacht are a team that feel they've got the wood on us -- and they've got every reason to think like that because they always challenge us in the matches and they got the win against us last year.
"It's going to be a big match for us, because our home fixtures now, with the run-in we've got, are becoming very important. This one is a very important match for us to settle our place within the top four."
However, three Magners League wins over the course of the Six Nations campaign underlines the strength-in-depth of the squad that Cheika will leave behind when he takes over at Stade Francais next season.
But an injury list that includes Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan, Kevin McLaughlin and Luke Fitzgerald -- who is not expected to feature again this season -- added to the absence of front-line Ireland players like Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, means that even Leinster's impressive resources are stretched.
This may allow Eoin O'Malley (below) and Fergus McFadden to continue their fledgling midfield partnership, as Shaun Berne has not trained this week with an Achilles problem. Rhys Ruddock or Eoin Sheriff could get the nod in the back-row should Nathan Hines fail to declare himself fit, while the exciting Andrew Conway might also be accommodated in the back three.
However, after seeing his young guns being comprehensively dismissed by the Dragons in December, Cheika is reluctant to play them again en masse.
"We've had a good response from our younger players this year. It's part of the culture we're trying to build -- that they understand responsibility. Maybe that Dragons game way back when was good because players were exposed to the reality of senior football.
"And then maybe we played too many of them in that one game. But I've been happy with those guys -- (Ian) Madigan is showing physicality we haven't seen from him before. And Conway, Sheriff and Ruddock -- there could be a place for them somewhere in there. I'd like to keep that going till the end of the season if I could, to mix it right."
However, Jonathan Sexton will play for the province and Cheika was quick to defend the out-half after his displays in the Six Nations drew unjustified criticism from certain sections.
"I think there's been a bit too much made of it all, really. Like, it's a bit dramatic, all the reaction.
"Personally, I think the way he's played in the championship has produced some of the best attacking football -- and defensive football --I've seen from him.
"I was really happy to see him play like that, because he could have stayed more conservative.
"I was really pleased with the way he played. I think that's going to give us a massive benefit when he comes back to play with us."