O'Connor urges fringe men to stake Euro claim
JUST six points separate Leinster and the Scarlets going into tonight's meeting at the RDS, but if Matt O'Connor's side have their wits about them they should stretch that lead to 11 with ease.
It's not that the Simon Easterby's outfit are a bad side or that the table is lying, far from it. It's just that almost half of their regular starting XV will be in action at the Millennium Stadium as Wales face Australia, thus denying what should be a good advertisement for the RaboDirect Pro12 much of its appeal.
While Leinster still have some of their November campaigners on ice, they have been able to recall seven members of Ireland's match-day squad from last weekend's heartbreaking defeat to New Zealand for action just six days later.
In addition, they can call on experienced internationals Zane Kirchner and Lote Tuqiri as well as core leaders Leo Cullen, Eoin Reddan and Shane Jennings for their final game before doing battle with Northampton Saints next week.
While Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien, Brian O'Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Isaac Boss, Dave Kearney, Kevin McLaughlin and Cian Healy will all add strength to the squad if available to be called on for the Heineken Cup double-header, it is a mark of Leinster's strength in depth that they can absorb the loss of so many key men and still put out a side that looks capable of winning with some room to spare.
Conversely, Easterby's squad will be sorely tested by the loss of Scott Williams, Rhodri Jones, Ken Owens, Samson Lee, Rhodri Williams, Rhys Priestland and Liam Williams for the game to Warren Gatland's squad for their out-of-IRB-window game against the Wallabies, while Jon Davies is injured.
The former Ireland flanker names just one back who started their Heineken Cup draw with Racing Metro in his starting side, while five of the pack remain.
Cullen's return is a welcome boost for O'Connor ahead of a hectic eight games without a break for internationals that takes in four pivotal European games and the Christmas inter-provincials.
The club captain allows Jennings to lead the team tonight as he looks to get through a body of work unscathed in his first game since last season's Pro12 final win over Ulster.
Other notable selections include Ian Madigan's recall at out-half – the 24-year-old needs a big display after a fitful start to the season. Jimmy Gopperth is held in reserve, but after his match-winning performance in Treviso last week the smart money remains on the New Zealander returning for the trip to Franklin's Gardens next week.
Elsewhere, Luke Fitzgerald starts on the left wing, with Brendan Macken at outside-centre, where he partners Gordon D'Arcy, the sole starter from the New Zealand game in the line-up.
Mike McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Madigan and Jack McGrath all start having come off the bench, while Mike Ross and Sean Cronin are among the replacements after prominent roles last week.
The outside-centre berth seemed tailor-made for Fitzgerald, who replaced the concussed Brian O'Driscoll last weekend, but Macken started both of Leinster's Heineken Cup clashes there this season, and his selection is a vote of confidence that he can deputise once again if the Ireland legend fails to recover sufficiently next week.
Up front, McGrath will be hoping to put memories of that cruel penalty harshly given against him to bed with a big display ahead of Healy's return, while Rhys Ruddock, Jennings and Jordi Murphy need to impress to retain a place in the European squad with O'Brien, Heaslip and McLaughlin waiting in the wings.
Ruddock has impressed for the province during their two November wins, while Murphy has recovered from his ankle surgery and is looking to build on his Young Player of the Year award from last season. Both will look to take the game to the Scarlets and set up a platform for the slick hands of Reddan and Madigan to release the heavy hitters outside.
If there is one criticism of O'Connor's reign to date it is that Leinster have yet to capture the fluency of recent seasons with ball in hand.
Winning ugly is a virtue, but the RDS faithful like their rugby aesthetically pleasing and with a long run of games without any interference, the Australian will be hoping to put some more cohesive attacking play together to match the Blues' much-vaunted defence.
As the front-liners return from Ireland duty, this is the last chance for some of the less heralded members of the squad to shine, and O'Connor challenged them to make their mark.
"Anyone in the environment is a good player – you wouldn't be here if you weren't," the former Leicester Tigers coach said.
"The senior guys drive it really well and understand the expectation of being in the Leinster squad. You have to take your opportunities – it's not a development league, it's about making sure that when you pull on the shirt you do it justice and we win more than we lose."
While O'Connor admitted he was still dealing with losing so many of his players to the international set-up over the past month, his opposite number is still coping.
A glance at Easterby's teamsheet indicates the gulf in experience out there tonight and, while the Scarlets coach is talking up his team's chances, he'll know his side are in for a tough night in Dublin 4.
"You need to go to face Leinster with a positive mindset and not allow them to put pressure on you throughout. They have the ability to keep hold of the ball and their continuity is second to none," he said.
"So we're not going there to keep offering them the opportunities – we have to turn up and take our game to them as well."
Expect them to give everything but fade and allow Leinster a valuable hit-out before next week's step up in class.
LEINSTER – Z Kirchner; L Tuqiri, B Macken, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, E Reddan; J McGrath, A Dundon, M Moore; L Cullen, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S Jennings (capt), J Murphy. Reps: S Cronin, M Bent, M Ross, T Denton, D Ryan, L McGrath, J Gopperth, D Fanning.
SCARLETS – G Owen; N Reynolds, G Maule, A Warren, F Climo; A Thomas, G Davies; P John (capt), K Myhill, J Adriaanse; J Ball, J Snyman; A Shingler, J Barclay, S Timani. Reps: E Phillips, R Evanbs, H Pungea, R Kelly, J Turnbull, A Davies, J Lewis, J Williams.
REF – I Davies (Wales)
Leinster v Scarlets,
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