Wednesday 16 January 2019

Last chance for Leinster's fringe players to make Champions Cup final bid

Barry Daly gets the nod on the right wing. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Barry Daly gets the nod on the right wing. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster, the schedule couldn't be better. One last hit-out against Connacht, before a clear 14 days to prepare for Racing 92, Bilbao and a shot at winning the fourth star for the jersey.

While it suits the coaches; the players on the margins of the squad who are looking for a window to show their wares and make a late bid for the match-day 23 in two weeks' time won't welcome the rest.

For them, this is it; 80 minutes to make an impression at a ground where their province have often struggled and against an opponent who want to end a poor season on a high note to send John Muldoon into retirement with a bounce.

Although the coaches will talk up the British and Irish Cup final next week, it's the plane to the Basque Country that all of the players want to make and with a squad as competitive as Leinster's there will be some disappointment.

With Luke McGrath set to return to fitness in time for the final, the coaches will have a freer hand when it comes to picking their back-three, scrum-half and the back five of the scrum as they consider how to work around the tournament's rules on so-called non-European players.

Doubts over Fergus McFadden's fitness potentially opens up a wing slot, while there are bench spots up for grabs in a number of positions.

Perhaps the man with the most to gain this afternoon is Jack Conan who recovered from his knee injury in time to make the bench for last week's semi-final against Scarlets and now has a starting opportunity to oust Jordi Murphy from the No 8 jersey.

Until his injury, the Wicklow native had been enjoying a consistent run in the starting side and while he was unable to take that form into an Ireland shirt and lost his place on the bench to Murphy in the closing weeks of the Six Nations campaign, he was expected to continue where he left off for Leinster.

His injury handed Murphy an opening and the Ulster-bound back-row has taken it with open arms, starring in the impressive wins over Saracens and Scarlets, and he will be confident of keeping his place for the clash with Racing.

Conan could perhaps benefit from McGrath's return which facilitates a move back into the second-row for Scott Fardy, but the combination of Devin Toner and James Ryan has worked well in the knock-out stages and Cullen may favour keeping it intact.

Up against Muldoon, the 25-year-old will view this as a chance to remind the coaches of his capacity to break the game open with his hard carrying and ability to free his hands in contact.

He is certain to be involved in a fortnight's time, but he'll be looking for a starting spot.

On the wing, James Lowe is primed to come back into the European team if, as expected, McGrath returns to full fitness.

Like Conan, the Kiwi flier's abrasiveness and capacity to off-load are important weapons and a strong performance on both sides of the ball would likely see him come back into the equation; particularly if McFadden fails to make it.

Amid the debate over where their futures lie, it is interesting to see Ross Byrne and Joey Carbery both start and Joe Schmidt will again be frustrated to see the Auckland-born starlet shifted to full-back.

With no out-half cover on the bench, it would be no surprise to see Carbery slip into the No 10 slot at some stage during the game and given he will be covering full-back and pivot in Bilbao it makes sense from Leinster's perspective to use him there today given he's favourite to make the bench ahead of Byrne next time out.

From an Ireland point of view, however, it is far from ideal ahead of the Australia tour this summer.

Alongside Byrne is Nick McCarthy whose first-team involvement has been fast-tracked this season due to the non-European scenario.

Likely to be on the bench again against Racing, the St Michael's graduate has a rare starting chance to show his wares and a chance to shine against international opposition in Kieran Marmion.

Out wide, speedster Barry Daly gets the nod ahead of Jordan Larmour on the right wing and the young hot shot, who was on the bench against Scarlets, will be targeting a big impact when introduced to keep that slot.

Tom Daly makes a welcome return after a long stint out after doing his cruciate, but he and Noel Reid - making his 100th appearance for the province - stand little chance of breaking into the midfield for the final where the combination of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose is set in stone, with Isa Nacewa covering.

Up front, the front-row that starts today will be, fitness permitting, on the bench in two weeks' time while Ross Molony will be eyeing a replacement spot if he can pitch up alongside Mick Kearney in the second-row this afternoon.


Toner's mission off the bench is to make sure he doesn't stay there for the final, while the likes of Seán Cronin, Cian Healy and Murphy will be hoping to avoid any injury while making an impact.

While Leinster are secure in the top position in Conference A, Racing still have work to do to secure a top-two finish in the Top 14 and face Bordeaux away tomorrow and Agen next Saturday needing to keep their winning run going.

After today, the Irish finalists can park the PRO14 until their home semi-final by which stage they'll hope to have collected a first top-tier European title since 2012.

For a host of players, today marks the last chance saloon for a number of players with final ambitions.

Irish Independent

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