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Tuesday 20 March 2018

Leinster lead the way in Irish Team of the Week after New Year's Day derbies

John Cooney (left), Bundee Aki (centre) and James Lowe (right).
John Cooney (left), Bundee Aki (centre) and James Lowe (right).
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

The Christmas inter-provincial clashes sometimes suffer from a lack of star-power but this festive period we have been treated to four cracking encounters - with two more derby clashes still to come this weekend.

The four Irish provinces rang in the new year in style yesterday, with Leinster and Ulster seeing off Connacht and Munster in dramatic and exciting games that perfectly whet the appetite for what should be a great few weeks of rugby.

Most of the players in action yesterday were rested for the first set of inter-pro games last week, and you could tell that they were keen to remind everyone of what they can do after their team-mates turned in some eye-catching performances.

Leinster lead the way with seven selections in the team of the (long) weekend, after beating Connacht 21-18 at the RDS, with the westerners getting three players in the team.

Ulster and Munster have three and two players in the XV respectively after the northern province secured a 24-17 comeback win at Kingspan Stadium.

Rob Kearney gets the nod at fullback despite a few handling errors in contact, although the 31-year-old was still able to make 112m with the ball in hand, which led all players across the two games.

James Lowe continued his impressive start to life at Leinster in his home debut, making 111m but it was his stunning reverse offload in the build-up to Max Deegan's try that really stood out. On the other wing is Ulster's Rob Lyttle, who we have shifted to the right wing for the purposes of rewarding his stellar display.

Craig Gilroy may have scored two tries, but Lyttle's score to seal a bonus point win was a deserved reward for the 20-year-old wing who made 97m on just six carries. Matt Healy also pushed for inclusion after slicing through the Leinster defence for a wonderful Connacht try.

We've gone with Connacht centres Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell as our 12/13 combo, with Aki coming out on top in his battle with Ireland rival Garry Ringrose. The Connacht outside centre was at his explosive best at the RDS, making a series of robust carries, while his younger centre partner continued to show impressive growth in the 12 channel.

It wasn't a vintage day for out-halves - with JJ Hanrahan turning in a poor display for Munster in Belfast - but Johnny Sexton showed enough of his class, despite a few errors, to make it into our team. Connacht's Jack Carty also acquitted himself well while Christian Lealiifano grew into the game for Ulster as their comeback gathered pace.

At nine, John Cooney once again showed why he has been the signing of the season for Ulster. Luke McGrath was exceptional for Leinster, but Cooney's Man of the Match display - including nailing a difficult late conversion to put Ulster in front - sees him get the nod at scrum-half.

Munster props James Cronin and John Ryan are rewarded for their side's dominant scrum performance, while Leinster hooker Sean Cronin's dynamic all-action display - including burning Bundee Aki down the wing - again highlights how perplexing his Ireland omission continues to be.

The second rows both come from the RDS fixture, with Ultan Dillane showing form close to his bulldozing best, while Ross Molony's 27 tackles in blue represent a remarkable haul for a lock.

Dan Leavy was well on his way to another Man of the Match display at blindside flanker for Leinster before injury ended his day around the 40-minute mark. In his place, we have gone with Ulster flanker Nick Timoney - who has been shifted to number six from the openside - after his strong ball-carrying display.

Josh van der Flier is rewarded for his tireless 34-tackle performance at number seven, while his team-mate Max Deegan completes the line-up at number eight for a display that included a lovely finish in the corner for a try, 52m made on four carries, 26 tackles and a game-sealing turnover.

All in all, a brilliant day of rugby that featured a host of promising performances. This weekend sees Leinster host Ulster at the RDS while Munster host Connacht at Thomond Park.

Here is our team in full:

15. Rob Kearney (Leinster)

14. Rob Lyttle (Ulster)

13. Bundee Aki (Connacht)

12. Tom Farrell (Connacht)

11. James Lowe (Leinster)

10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster)

9. John Cooney (Ulster)

1. James Cronin (Munster)

2. Sean Cronin (Leinster)

3. John Ryan (Munster)

4. Ultan Dillane (Connacht)

5. Ross Molony (Leinster)

6. Nick Timoney (Ulster)

7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster)

8. Max Deegan (Leinster)

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