Wednesday 17 July 2019

O'Connor gamble as big guns rested

Leinster's Zane Kirchner during squad training
Leinster's Zane Kirchner during squad training
David Kelly

David Kelly

ANYONE who still clings to the forlorn hope that the good ship Guinness Pro12 retains the unshakeable faith of all those who sail in her - let alone those paying the money at the gates - won't find much succour for their argument at the names listed at the bottom of the page.

Or, rather, the names not listed.

As the regular league campaign enters its final knockings, perhaps the television people had the foresight in choosing not to broadcast this one live (if you have S4C, three cheers).

Rob Kearney; Sean O'Brien; Cian Healy; Mike Ross; Ian Madigan; Jamie Heaslip; Devin Toner; Sean Cronin - All are missing from the Leinster roster seeking to avoid another intensely embarrassing defeat to Wales' perennially weakest region.

A fortnight after calling out the IRFU for the stringency with which they apply their player welfare system, which affects 20 of his players, Matt O'Connor has chosen to rest most of the very same players he might have wished to play against Glasgow a fortnight ago.

Then, the familiar and understandable complaints about a lack of continuity were forthcoming as Leinster scraped a draw at home before edging through a seat-of-the-pants tussle in Europe against Bath.

Now, with a trip to back-to-back European champions Toulon looming just six days after tomorrow's tie, O'Connor and his brains trust are clearly targeting both that semi-final and the following week's league tie against Ulster more than today's trip to Rodney Parade.

It's a gamble in keeping with a season which, with every passing week, resembles a white knuckle ride. Few inside the camp will complain once it ends in silverware.

The Dragons, to their credit, have publicly come clean in their dismissal of this Pro12 tie, declaring it a "training session" ahead of their own European tie next weekend, albeit Lyn Jones has made minimal changes to his line-up.

All in all, it's a rum do.


Even if Leinster win, their play-off hopes may still founder thanks to their often horrendous form in this competition.

Where once Leinster used to charge through spring without their international contingent, they now splutter and, for all the fuss made in recent weeks about the imminent returns of club legends Jonathan Sexton and Isa Nacewa, perhaps more of a spotlight should be shone upon those players who have failed to advance since that duo's departure.

In all, O'Connor has made 12 changes to his side, a selection complicated by the fact that Fergus McFadden failed to pass return to play protocols following his concussion against Bath.

Ben Marshall's second start of the season is noteworthy, as is the ongoing absence of hamstring victim Kane Douglas.

Meanwhile, Dragons coach Jones has remained faithful to his declaration that he would retain as many of his starters as possible; an easier choice, in fairness, given they operate in a less rarefied climate and without a host of internationals.

Their best known, No 8 Toby Faletau, starts after being benched last week.

"We've got to use Leinster in a five-day turnaround as a really good training session," says Jones ahead of his side's Challenge Cup date with Edinburgh.

His side have won their last three encounters in all tournaments since losing out to Zebre in Parma in the league a month ago and have won two of their last three contests with Irish provinces, a recent 26-22 victory over Ulster ending a run of five home losses to Irish opponents at Rodney Parade.

Leinster's only win in their last five league games was February's 29-8 win at home to Zebre and they have been victorious only once away from home in any tournament since October - January's 22-13 league win at Cardiff Blues on January 10 - a run which includes three draws.

Dragons have never before achieved a season's double over the Irishmen but Leinster have won on their last four visits to Newport and they will do so again.

Verdict: Leinster

Newport Gwent Dragons - J Tovey; T Prydie, T Morgan, J Dixon, H Amos; D Jones, J Evans; P Price, T Rhys Thomas capt, B Harris, J Thomas, C Hill, N Crosswell, N Cudd, T Faletau.

Reps: R Buckley, L Garrett, D Way, M Screech, J Benjamin, L Jones, P Leach, G Rhys Jones.

Leinster - Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Te'o, G D'Arcy, D Fanning; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Moore; B Marshall, M McCarthy; D Ryan, S Jennings capt, J Conan. Reps: A Dundon, M Bent, T Furlong, R Molony, J Murphy, L McGrath, N Reid, L Fitzgerald.

Ref- M Mitrea (FIR)

Dragons v Leinster,

Live, S4C, tomorrow 4.15

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