Heaslip leads Leinster revenge mission
THEY say revenge is a dish best served cold, which makes the Sportsground an ideal location for Leinster this evening (6.05) as they bid to exact retribution for their last two fruitless visits to Galway.
Connacht have a long and complicated history with Leinster, which can be boiled down to the fact that Irish rugby's western outpost has been a haven for players who felt they weren't getting a fair crack of the whip back east.
This, inevitably, creates a chip-on- the-shoulder mentality and a point-proving propulsion that has traditionally seen Connacht raise their game when Leinster come calling.
As they did in October 2008, when Mike McCarthy charged over under the posts for the crucial try in their 19-18 win, or last April, when Michael Swift finished off a wonderful move (which should have been honoured with try of the season) as Connacht soared to a 14-point victory.
The key men from those triumphs, Gavin Duffy, Fionn Carr, Ian Keatley, Sean Cronin and John Muldoon all start, while Frank Murphy, who missed last season's fixture, has an opportunity to make a statement against Isaac Boss, having lost out to the Leinster man in last Tuesday's Ireland squad announcement.
Indeed, there are similar clashes (those who made it into the squad versus those who didn't) all over the park, notably out wide where Carr goes up against Shane Horgan and in the scrum where Brett Wilkinson and Jamie Hagan take on Cian Healy and Mike Ross.
Plenty of motivation for Connacht then, but Leinster carry their own imperatives into his fixture.
Whereas in the past there was the impression that they trudged into the Sportsground underwhelmed by the less than glamorous occasion and unsettled by the conditions and style of opposition, Leinster arrive this time determined to atone for the last two visits.
Given the disparity in resources, it was understandable that Connacht celebrated those victories riotously, but, if you were sitting in the Leinster dressing-room, the whooping and hollering would have left a lasting impact.
Furthermore, although the win over Munster in their last league outing and double victories in the Heineken Cup made for compelling viewing, Leinster badly need another Magners victory to propel them up the table from their current position of eighth.
After a rough start to their league campaign, Leinster's upsurge coincided with the canny decision by coach Joe Schmidt to hand the captaincy to Jamie Heaslip.
The Naas man's talismanic qualities have now reached Rocky Elsom proportions and it is significant that he retains the captaincy this evening, despite Leo Cullen's return to the second-row.
It is another smart move by Schmidt, for not only does it maintain the momentum built up under Heaslip's stewardship, but it also takes the pressure off Cullen in his first start back after injury, while still tapping into the second-row's authority alongside Heaslip's.
It is worth noting that Heaslip did not start in Leinster's last two defeats at the Sportsground and his presence from the off is one of the main reasons why the visitors should triumph.
They have named a strong starting team that includes nine members of the Ireland squad and another (Cullen) soon to be called up.
Among that number are the in-form trio of full-back Rob Kearney, out-half Jonathan Sexton and flanker Sean O'Brien and the whole package, when combined with the motivation factors, simply looks too powerful.
That being said, this is not a Connacht side that is about to roll over. It is a team with proven partnerships in the key areas of midfield, half-back, front-five and back-row, while Carr and Duffy will guide All-Ireland league graduate Darragh Fanning through his biggest game to date.
Schmidt has been briefed on the historical aspect to this fixture and knows what is coming.
"I'm expecting them to really charge at us, particularly some of our exports (who are) there," said the New Zealander.
"There are some really good young guys who have gone there and are showing a fair bit of form; the likes of Jamie Hagan, Ian Keatley and Fionn Carr to name just a few.
"I know that they'll be really motivated. I know that Connacht see themselves as the underdog and they're always highly motivated for these Leinster matches."
It has all the makings of a cracking contest, but Leinster should have the edge, particularly with a bench brimming with quality in the shape of Heinke van der Merwe, Nathan Hines, Eoin Reddan and Gordon D'Arcy.
Connacht will give it a right rattle and have the capacity to stay right in it until the end, but may have to make do with a losing bonus point.
CONNACHT -- G Duffy; D Fanning, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; B Wilkinson, S Cronin, J Hagan; M Swift, M McCarthy; J O'Connor, R Ofisa, J Muldoon (capt). Reps: A Flavin, B Fa'amasuili, R Loughney, B Upton, E Taylor, C Willis, M Nikora, T Nathan.
LEINSTER -- R Kearney; S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen, D Toner; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: J Harris-Wright, H van der Merwe, S Shawe, N Hines, D Ryan, E Reddan, G D'Arcy, A Conway.
REF -- G Clancy (Ireland)
Connacht v Leinster,
Live, RTE 2, 6.05