Sport Rugby

Friday 24 November 2017

Leinster to turn up the heat out west

Weakened Connacht stand little chance against O'Connor's relentless power machine

Jamie Heaslip's return to the starting XV is a signal of Leinster's intent
Jamie Heaslip's return to the starting XV is a signal of Leinster's intent
David Kelly

David Kelly

Last week, Connacht took a look at their opponents' line-up and smacked their lips in anticipation.

If they have done the same this week, the sound emitting from their mouths may not be so enthusiastic.

Leinster trundle into town locked and loaded, viewing this week as the first leg of their determined assault on a Heineken Cup home quarter-final and eyeing this fixture as a perfect primer for a forthcoming trip to Castres.

Matt O'Connor could select today's line-up for next week's key visit to the Top 14 champions and, barring one or two changes (Mike McCarthy, Dave Kearney), he may be very close to doing so.

Given Jamie Heaslip's return to the base of the scrum, it makes sense to return Jordi Murphy to the openside slot, where the 23-year-old reminded us last week that he is plenty comfortable.

With Sean O'Brien absent for the foreseeable future, this is the perfect opportunity for Murphy to allow Heaslip continue his own game while attempting to mimic O'Brien's ball-carrying.

It would be a significant stretch to start Murphy in Castres next weekend but, given O'Brien's unavailability, he remains the only obvious carrying candidate who can stand in for the Carlow man.

Rhys Ruddock's superb form could easily freight him into the Heineken Cup starting line-up and it makes sense not to switch him from six. This all confirms the strength in depth in this area, as Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings continue to be overlooked.

In the tight, Martin Moore must now be a live contender to evict Mike Ross from his familiar European starting berth; a move which will have consequences down the line when Joe Schmidt selects his first championship team. The Leinster pack is all-Irish qualified and, without Heaslip, their average age would dip well below 25.

Another calculation, one can assume, being crunched in IRFU headquarters, as the infamous quill hovers above prospective new player contracts.

SWEATING

In a formidable back line, Dave Kearney may be sweating a tad because, if the three-quarters really ticks, Springbok Zane Kirchner may keep the younger of the Louth brothers at an arm's reach.

In stark contrast, Connacht have unveiled a couple of kids in their back-line and withdrawn key veterans. With the Pro12 a write-off, their priority is five points against Zebre next weekend.

Still, presuming there aren't the type of conditions that once witnessed Felipe Contepomi essay the world's first ever boomerang conversion, Pat Lam may have unearthed a thrilling line-up.

Whether they're a winning line-up is a tad more dubious. Plucking two kids from the Academy to replace the experience of Gavin Duffy and Dan Parks is an audacious leap of faith. One hopes, for their sake, it is rewarded.

Here's another stat for those with their eye on the long-term health of Irish rugby; this Connacht back line is all-Irish qualified with an average age of just 22. In the regrettable absence of erstwhile Lansdowne star Craig Ronaldson, Jack Carty leaps from the page.

He's in his third year at the Connacht Academy and our Galway spies inform us that his temperament has belatedly linked up with his professional ambition.

The Athlone man captained the Connacht Eagles in the British & Irish Cup this season and has featured from the bench in Pro12 games against Benetton Treviso and Munster. His first of three senior caps came against Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun in September 2012. The 21-year-old's clash against Ian Madigan will be fascinating.

Darragh Leader, just 20, has also been brought up from the Academy and starts at full-back in place of the injured Duffy. He has already featured in three games this season, starting on the wing at home against Glasgow and Scarlets.

Carty will benefit from the continuing excellence of Kieran Marmion inside him. He plays his 44th consecutive game since his debut in 2012, a sequence which must soon be interrupted by international commitments.

The pack remains unchanged from last week -- only one of several reasons that this fixture will go the way of the away side -- with local flanker Andrew Browne earning his 100th cap for the province.

John Muldoon is once again named at openside, while Jake Heenan remains on the injured list with Willie Faloon, the only duo you feel who could realistically challenge for breakdown possession.

There are two changes to the replacements bench, with veteran second-row Michael Swift returning from injury.

Dubliner Paul O'Donohoe is in line to earn his 50th Connacht cap should the scrum-half be called upon against his former club this evening.

"With our second and third choice out-halves injured, we have decided to bring in young Jack Carty to start," explained Lam, whose Heineken Cup exploits appear to have forgiven some embarrassments in the League.

"Jack has been involved with us in training all year and has had some good performances with the Eagles.

"It is a great boost to his development as a young Irish qualified 10 to play against such quality opposition and I know he is very much looking forward to the test. Darragh will start at full-back, a position in which he has proven himself with the Ireland U-20s in the World Championship last summer.

"We have an extremely young back-line going up against the best team in Europe and the league champions.

"But we have a belief in our young squad and if every player does their job and commits to the game plan we've put in place, then we have every chance of getting the desired result."

We applaud his optimism, but logic dictates otherwise.

Verdict: Leinster

Leinster -- R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, S Cronin, M Moore, D Toner, T Denton, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip (captain). Reps: A Dundon, J O'Connell, M Ross, M McCarthy, D Ryan, I Boss, J Gopperth, D Kearney.

Connacht -- D Leader; F Carr, R Henshaw, E Griffin, M Healy; J Carty, K Marmion; B Wilkinson, J Harris-Wright, N White, M Kearney, C Clarke captain, A Browne, J Muldoon, E McKeon. Reps: D Heffernan, D Buckley, R Ah You, M Swift, G Naoupu, P O'Donohoe, D Parks, T O'Halloran.

Ref -- G Clancy (IRFU)

CONNACHT V LEINSTER,

LIVE, TG4, 7.15

Head to head

Robbie Henshaw v Brian O'Driscoll

Appropriately enough at a time of year when we get rid of the old and greet the new, a glimpse of the (almost imminent) past and present collide in Galway this evening when, for the first time, the prince of centres and one of his pretenders collide.

Beware too many portents of a potentially epoch-defining transferring of the baton and such tosh, however. Often, these putative head-to-heads amount to little more than a damp squib, particularly if one side dominates the other.

Much was expected of the Connacht midfield combination last weekend, but getting spanked on the floor and some errant tactical manoeuvres from their out-half tossed that hope out the window.

Connacht's eight men up front -- and particularly their three men in the back-row -- must engage in a half-decent contest or else the young Ballinasloe kid will be spending the day looking behind him.

O'Driscoll would like to have had more rugby in him and he will be keen to banish the memories of a pretty poor display against Northampton when he and his team-mates vastly under-performed.

Irish Independent

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