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Ringrose v Aki: Ireland midfield sub-plot adds intrigue as Leinster and Connacht clash



Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki will battle it out again at the RDS today   Photo: Sportsfile

Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki will battle it out again at the RDS today Photo: Sportsfile


Garry Ringrose and Bundee Aki will battle it out again at the RDS today Photo: Sportsfile

Expectant fans hoping to welcome their conquering heroes back to the RDS this afternoon were left disappointed on Saturday when Leo Cullen opted to hit the rotation button which means the players who stormed Thomond Park will largely be confined to the Anglesea Stand.

If Connacht supporters were hoping to draw solace from the changes then they might want to cast a glance at the home team first as the vast riches of the capital club are laid bare.

After a bonus-point win in Limerick, Cullen can change 13 players and still name Rob Kearney, Garry Ringrose and Johnny Sexton in his backline behind a pack with a little less firepower but plenty of talent.


With Jack Conan rested, Leinster dip down to their third-choice No 8 and find the 2016 U-20 world player of the year Max Deegan, who will be only too keen to show that he can follow his old Ireland team-mates James Ryan, Andrew Porter and Jacob Stockdale into the big time.

Up against them is a Connacht team on a roll and at close to full strength with Kieran Keane making three changes to the team that hammered Ulster nine days ago.

At the heart of that effort was, as always, Bundee Aki and a month out from the Six Nations it will be fascinating to watch his meeting with Garry Ringrose in midfield.

The Leinster No 13 was out of action when the New Zealander was making his Ireland debut in November and the decision on which of the pair plays alongside Robbie Henshaw in the spring is perhaps the biggest on Joe Schmidt's plate ahead of the tournament.

It is a contrast in styles with the gliding figure of Ringrose up against the confrontational Aki.

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The Dubliner is all soft touches and arcing angles combined with a smart defensive game; the Aucklander mixes rough edges and brutal collisions with deft handling and the capacity to unlock defences with his offload.

Sexton is the heart and soul of the Leinster team, but it is Aki who sets the tone for his side and he will look to put as many of his international colleagues on their backsides as frequently as possible.

The return of the Ireland out-half, who lasted just two minutes of the win over Exeter Chiefs after suffering a head injury, is a welcome one and his decision-making will be key to the home side's ambitions.

Up against them is a team that has finally begin to show some form under Kieran Keane after a rocky initial few months in charge.

They've won three on the bounce, but even with Leinster's changes this is a step up in class.

And yet there are plenty of survivors of the 2016 Guinness PRO12 final in the Connacht ranks and they won't have any fear.

Since then, the western province have rarely hit the same heights but the manner of their win over Ulster on the 23rd suggested their electric attacking game could be back.

Leinster assistant coach Girvan Dempsey is certainly respectful of their strengths.

"The biggest thing for Connacht is that they were hit with a lot of injuries and it's taken them a while to hit their stride," the former Ireland full-back said.


"Now we can see that they've got guys back. Niyi Adeolokun is back, Matt Healy's back in the fold and the back three looks extremely dangerous.

"But you saw over the last few weeks that they're starting to get a lot more settled, there's more clarity in how they want to play, so there's not a massive change.

"I think they've adapted a few changes (under Keane), they're more of a kicking threat than they would have been a couple of years ago, so it is going to be a huge challenge and they are on form.

"To get that sort of result at home against Ulster, I know people will say it was a weakened Ulster side but the reality is that when you look at it on paper, it was a pretty strong side and Connacht looked very menacing in the first half.

"So that's what we know, we have to be strong and can't afford to give them a lead because they're a difficult side to play against."

As ever, much will be decided in the close exchanges and the loss of Jack McGrath to injury at a time when Cian Healy is banned leaves Cullen dipping into his prop reserves.

Peter Dooley wears the No 1 jersey while Andrew Porter is at tighthead with the experienced Seán Cronin in between and they will have a battle on their hands against the Connacht trio of Denis Coulson, Tom McCartney and Finlay Bealham. Having fallen down the pecking order behind James Ryan, Ross Molony has an opportunity to impress alongside Ian Nagle, while Ultan Dillane can reinforce his own Ireland claims with a dominant display.

The back-row battle promises to be tasty, with the impressive Australian Jarrad Butler a potential thorn in Leinster's side as he goes toe to toe with Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy at the breakdown.

Behind the scrum, there is the prospect of new boy James Lowe linking up with his first choice out-half, full-back and outside centre against an electric Connacht back three.


Cian Kelleher comes in for Adeolokun who drops to the bench, but the former Leinster winger will hardly weaken the unit that is led by the in-form Matt Healy and Tiernan O'Halloran.

Jack Carty has been enjoying his season and if can control matters against such quality opposition there will be increasing calls for an Ireland call-up.

Their recent form was much needed, because the early-season stuff has put them in a PRO14 hole. While Leinster are just two points off Scarlets at the top of Conference B, the westerners are six points behind the Cheetahs in 'A'. The South Africans have a game in hand.

So, Connacht need results but this has not been a happy hunting ground. It is 16 years since they last won in Dublin and the odds are against them ending that run today.

They have plenty of finishing power, but Leinster should have enough nous to steer themselves clear of trouble.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent