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McFadden primed for central role

It says something for Leinster's development from a province perennially tugging at Munster's forelock to world brand leaders themselves that their 'weakened' team travelling west today still features nine Irish internationals.

Even though Michael Cheika's side is debilitated by the absence of talismanic Grand Slam heroes such as Brian O'Driscoll, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney, the Heineken Cup champions appear an ominous proposition.

Of those most keen to impress in Leinster colours today is arguably a player who Connacht would covet were those in charge of Irish rugby faintly touched with a belief that having a fourth province is worth more than mere geographical window dressing.

Fergus McFadden has already made nine appearances for Leinster this season, but only the most myopic -- ie those paid by the province -- can argue that his career is best served by playing second fiddle to Messrs O'Driscoll, D'Arcy and co.

In his previous two seasons, he made only nine appearances in total. Of the 18 appearances, half have come from the bench, while it wasn't until this season that he made his Heineken Cup debut; more than two years after his Magners League debut.

The most damning statistic is that he has played just 26 minutes of Heineken Cup rugby, and all of those within the last month. His speedy international progression -- he has been at the Churchill Cup twice, starring as Ireland won the trophy last summer, not to mention a World Championship at U-21 level -- would lead one to suspect that a regular diet of top-class rugby, as opposed to sloshing around the AIL, would be more prudent.

Yet such is Leinster's crisis at out-half, or, more specifically, a crisis of goal-kicking, McFadden has become more indispensable than his army of admirers may have expected, with Jonathan Sexton's return to action postponed for another week.

And, given Leinster's record in developing home-grown talent -- five of the Irish squad left on the field at the end of the tumultuous success against South Africa were products of the Leinster Academy during Cheika's time in charge -- perhaps McFadden fans can feel confident that he has a future in blue.

Helping Leinster avoid an embarrassing defeat, as happened during the side's crisis of confidence this time last season before they circled the wagons en route to Murrayfield glory, would aid McFadden's attempts to nail down a regular squad berth.

"We know what to expect against Connacht because they are formidable opponents at the Sportsground and they have been in impressive form at home and away over the last few weeks," said the 23-year-old Old Belvedere man.

McFadden agrees Leinster will need to improve their work on the floor after a sloppy display against Ulster in the 15-3 win last time out.

"You never get an easy game in inter-provincial derbies, and we're under no illusions as to what kind of a challenge awaits us.

"From our perspective, it is vital that we work on the areas that we were poor at last weekend in the win over Ulster.

"There were a few 50-50 passes that were poorly executed from our end, while there were defensive errors that will be punished if we repeat them this week, but training has gone well and the focus and intent from the squad has been encouraging. It's not as if we need major reconstruction, but we do need to tighten up some of our areas and to be more clinical in possession."

And operating with the highly creative Shaun Berne and the in-form Gordon D'Arcy inside him should provide McFadden the opportunity to further press his credentials for the final rounds of the Heineken Cup later this month.

"It is good to be involved in keenly contested games at this time of year, even though you miss out on some of the social elements of Christmas and the New Year. But, as players, we're not complaining because you do get to spend a bit of time with your families and loved ones.

"We're in our own little bubble, working away as a group, so nothing really changes for us. But I'm personally happy to be playing regularly and it gives you a lift when you're winning, and we want to continue that."

Ireland trio Girvan Dempsey, Trevor Hogan and Mike Ross come into the team for the trip to Galway. In the pack, Nathan Hines has recovered from injury to take his place in the back-row alongside Sean O'Brien and Stephen Keogh.

rested

Captain John Muldoon and hooker Sean Cronin, who were rested last week in compliance with the IRFU Player Management Programme, return to the Connacht side. Also returning to the starting XV are Carr, Keatley, Frank Murphy, Ronan Loughney, Robbie Morris, Mike McCarthy and Ray Ofisa.

Connacht have won their last three games at the Sportsground in all competitions, but have lost their last five matches against fellow Irish provinces. Leinster have won four of their last five games in all competitions, but have lost their last two away from home in the Magners League.

The surface of the pitch has been covered in a bid to beat the big freeze but it will take more than a blanket defence to see off a red-hot Leinster side.

Verdict: Leinster

Connacht v Leinster

Live Setanta Sports 1, 4.0

Connacht -- T Nathan; L Bibo, N Ta'auso, K Matthews, F Carr; I Keatley, F Murphy; R Loughney, S Cronin, R Morris; M McCarthy, B Upton, J Muldoon (capt), R Ofisa, G Naoupu. Replacements: A Flavin, J Hagan, M Swift, A Browne, C O'Loughlin, M Nikora, A Wynne.

Leinster -- G Dempsey; S Horgan, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, I Nacewa; S Berne, E Reddan; S Wright, B Jackman, M Ross, L Cullen capt, T Hogan, N Hines, S O'Brien, Stephen Keogh. Replacements from: R Strauss, R McCormack, D Toner, K McLaughlin, P Ryan, P O'Donohoe, Simon Keogh, D Kearney.

REF -- P Fitzgibbon (IRFU).

Irish Independent