Tuesday 20 March 2018

Fitzgerald and Henshaw centres of attention in Lam's first taste of RDS

Henshaw: Hoping to make an impact
Henshaw: Hoping to make an impact
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

AS Brian O'Driscoll's final season continues without him, tonight's clash at the RDS will see two of the pretenders to his throne coming face to face.

After Brendan Macken's Heineken Cup outings in the famous No 13 jersey, it is the turn of another Blackrock College product to have a go, this time a more experienced operator in Luke Fitzgerald.

After being cut from Joe Schmidt's Ireland squad, the 26-year-old will have plenty to play for, particularly as he takes on a young man who survived the cull in Robbie Henshaw, who will be hoping to add to his two caps next month.

If they have a chance to catch up after the clash, there is much Fitzgerald could tell the young Connacht star. The two are part of an elite club of four Irish professional players capped in their teens and the older man's career burned bright early on, but has been ravaged by a succession of serious injuries since.

He made his return off the bench in the Heineken Cup and might have felt that his impact at a vital stage against Castres last weekend could have forced him into Schmidt's plans, but it wasn't to be.

The New Zealander's fingerprints looked all over Keith Earls' selection at No 13 for Munster, but the Moyross man missed out on their top of the table clash with Glasgow last night due to a knee strain and this could yet open a door for both players.

Fitzgerald has plenty to play for, while Henshaw can build on his budding reputation. It should be fascinating.

Leinster are still without Mike Ross as Michael Bent comes in for his first start for the senior team since March. The New Zealand-born, Ireland international marks a year here in a week's time and it has been something of a rollercoaster. After Marty Moore's efforts in recent weeks, he could do with a big showing after doing well off the bench against the French champions last week.

Ian Madigan is given a chance to unleash the frustration he has built up on the bench over the past two weeks on the Westerners and he will be straining at the leash to get Leinster playing after winning ugly on successive weekends.

Those are the sub-plots, while the main event is a derby that is always close at the Sportsground, where Connacht inflicted a serious defeat on the Blues last season, but is usually comfortable for tonight's hosts when at the RDS.

Injuries to James So'oialo and Danie Poolman have weakened Pat Lam's hand for his first trip to the venue as coach and he brings Gavin Duffy and Tiernan O'Halloran into the back-three, with former Leinster man Fionn Carr on the bench.

Andrew Browne joins him there as he is replaced by last week's try-scorer Mata Fifita, while uncapped Lansdowne hooker Dave Heffernan and inexperienced utility back Darragh Leader are among the replacements.

The contrast between the benches is stark as Leinster include Springbok Zane Kirchner for the first time, alongside Jimmy Gopperth, Isaac Boss, Shane Jennings and former Connacht lock Mike McCarthy, who makes way for Quinn Roux.

Their back-row remains unchanged from their stellar Heineken Cup outings and Connacht will have to be at their best to stop Sean O'Brien at source after a series of outstanding displays in the tight and loose.

Inside-centre Craig Ronaldson is another with a point to prove against his former Leinster age-grade rival Noel Reid. Reid gets the nod ahead of Gordon D'Arcy, who is rested ahead of his Ireland involvement.


Sean Cronin will hope he and Devin Toner can rectify Leinster's line-out problems from last week as he looks to push Rory Best for an Ireland starting spot. Leinster's ability to secure primary possession can unleash a backline with plenty of threats, particularly out wide, where Fergus McFadden and the Kearney brothers have operated off limited ball in recent weeks.

Dan Parks remains crucial to Connacht's efforts after an excellent outing in Parma last week, while Kieran Marmion will have plenty of motivation to get the better of Eoin Reddan after being overlooked for Ireland.

But across the park, Leinster look to have too much for their provincial rivals, particularly in the back-row where another strong display from the Ireland squad trio of Kevin McLaughlin, captain Jamie Heaslip and O'Brien would be just what Schmidt and John Plumtree are looking for.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER – R Kearney; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, N Reid, D Kearney; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Bent; D Toner, Q Roux; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: A Dundon, J O'Connell, M Moore, M McCarthy, S Jennings, I Boss, J Gopperth, Z Kirchner.

CONNACHT – G Duffy; T O'Halloran, R Henshaw, C Ronaldson, M Healy; D Parks, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, S Henry, R Ah You; M Swift (capt), C Clarke; M Fifita, J Heenan, G Naoupu. Reps: D Heffernan, JP Cooney, R Loughney, A Muldowney, A Browne, P O'Donohoe, D Leader, F Carr.

REF – D Wilkinson (IRFU)

Leinster v Connacht,

Live, RTE 2, 6.45

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