'He has been outstanding' - Luke Fitzgerald backs Leinster young gun for surprise start against Toulouse
Luke Fitzgerald has backed 22-year-old centre Conor O'Brien to make the step up to Champions Cup rugby and start for Leinster in this Saturday's crucial clash with Toulouse.
Leo Cullen's men currently trail the French side by two points in pool one, with the 1pm RDS encounter this weekend likely to decide which team secures a lucrative home quarter-final.
Leinster have a number of injury concerns, with Johnny Sexton and Devin Toner both doubtful, while Robbie Henshaw has only just returned to training after suffering a hamstring injury in the warm-up against Argentina during the autumn internationals.
Cullen selected Noel Reid and Rory O'Loughlin at inside centre for the Champions Cup back-to-back games against Bath in Henshaw's absence, and now must decide whether to bring the Ireland star back into the team to face Toulouse, or go with another option.
One man who has impressed at both 12 and 13 this season is 22-year-old Westmeath native Conor O'Brien, who gave another strong showing against Ulster at the RDS last weekend.
O'Brien was added to Leinster's European squad after the game and speaking on The Left Wing, Independent.ie's rugby podcast, Luke Fitzgerald thinks that although he is untested at Champions Cup level, Saturday could be the right time to promote the young prospect.
"In terms of the centre, Conor O'Brien has been outstanding," Fitzgerald said
"He has been a serious, serious physical presence every time I've seen him. It would be a massive step up and a big ask but I like the physicality that he brings. That might be a better balance."
Irish Independent rugby correspondent Ruaidhri O'Connor had similar praise for O'Brien, and added that he thought Leinster could have added him to their European squad earlier in the campaign.
"I was very surprised they didn't include him in their rounds three and four squads to be honest," O'Connor said.
"Henshaw was out and he had already shown enough in the PRO 14 games before that to merit at least being in the squad. They've put him in instead of Joe Tomane now. He has been excellent over Christmas. I really like him."
Toulouse ended Leinster's 10-match winning run in the Champions Cup back in October in a scintillating encounter and a clash of similar quality is expected this weeked. Although Leinster could be without some key men - including World Rugby Player of the Year Sexton - Fitzgerald points to one important reason why he makes his former side the likely winners.
"The reason I say they are favourites - it is Leinster's pack that does it for me," he added.
"I'd nearly say they have the two best packs in the tournament. It is more the front row that is the key difference for me. If everyone is fit there for Leinster they are so dynamic and are brilliant at set-piece. They have Jack McGrath coming back. We have underestimated him. Jack McGrath is an outstanding rugby player. He was brilliant last weekend [against Ulster]. Devin Toner would be a miss but I think that is the winning of the game there. If they can provide a good platform, Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park run a good ship as well. All those things combined, I'd give Leinster a slight edge."
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