Leinster are ready to see off 'furious challenge'
CONNACHT may never get a better chance to win in Dublin than they have tonight.
Pat Lam has named his strongest possible team for the first of a tasty looking run of interprovincial clashes, having given most of them a week off.
They are on a high after the second-string's win in Bayonne last weekend and know victory over Leinster would represent a significant step on their route to European qualification for next season.
The hosts are down men, out of form and battling a storm of negativity.
Their backs are against the wall, but as of yet Matt O'Connor's men have been unable to muster a response even though they've been winning matches.
History works against Connacht's argument and the bookies are unconvinced by their claim, giving Leinster an 11 point headstart.
The westerners have never won in the capital but are experiencing a new dawn this season. Their credentials have been examined and they have largely passed the tests thus far. Tonight is the latest instalment.
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O'Connor is expecting a "furious challenge" from a team who traditionally raise their game when they see Leinster blue.
Having beaten their neighbours at the Sportsground earlier this season and gone close at the RDS last, Connacht will be up for this one.
"It's a little bit of what they deliver against us and what they deliver against the Scarlets or the Dragons - is that the same beast?" said O'Connor.
"It's almost pointless looking at what they deliver in those games. It's about what it means for them to beat Leinster and, to a lesser extent, that expectation that we're dealing with every week,
"You're playing against the Pro12 champions, Leinster, one of the best teams in Europe over the last little period. All of those things make it a massive day wherever you go, in Europe or the Pro12, everyone wants to beat Leinster.
"There's an edge everywhere you go because it's their biggest day in the league, the biggest crowd - it's their grand final.
"That's what we'll be up against with Connacht in how desperate they are to beat Leinster."
So, the question is can the western province match up to their rivals?
Across the pitch, the match-ups look like they can edge it. Up front, Leinster have rested Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross, meaning Michael Bent, Aaron Dundon and Tadhg Furlong take on Denis Buckley, Tom McCartney and Rodney Ah You.
With Quinn Roux and Aly Muldowney lending their weight, Connacht will look to dominate the set-piece, while the back-rows look well-matched with Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin lacking match-sharpness as they take on John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon and George Naoupu alongside Jamie Heaslip.
Behind the scrum, Isaac Boss and out-of-form Jimmy Gopperth face off with Kieran Marmion and Jack Carty while Connacht have fire-power in midfield with Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw up against Noel Reid and Luke Fitzgerald, while Leinster have the edge in the back-three with Dave Kearney joining his brother Rob and Zane Kirchner.
The Leinster bench looks like it has more scope for an impact, with Sean Cronin, Jack Conan, Jordi Murphy and Gordon D'Arcy all capable of making their mark.
Lam would have watched Leinster's struggles against Harlequins and taken note.
Expect Connacht to blitz the breakdown and target Leinster's scrum before sending Henshaw up the middle and bring Mils Muliaina and Aki into the game.
Despite their form, Leinster have still been winning games but they've lost their metronomic boot in Ian Madigan and their pack looks vulnerable.
Chances to make history won't come much better for Connacht, it's up to them to take it and darken the mood even further in the capital.
Leinster v Connacht
Live TG4, 7.35
LEINSTER - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, L Fitzgerald, N Reid, D Kearney; J Gopperth, I Boss; M Bent, A Dundon, T Furlong; D Toner, K Douglas; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Van Dyk, J Conan, J Murphy, L McGrath, C Marsh, G D'Arcy.
CONNACHT - M Muliaina; D Poolman, R Henshaw, B Aki, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, R Ah You; Q Roux, A Muldowney; J Muldoon (capt), E McKeon, G Naoupu. Reps: D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, U Dillane, W Faloon, C Blade, C Ronaldson, D Leader.
REFEREE - I Davies (Wales)