Leinster travel to Connacht on Saturday for what promises to be an exciting interpro derby in the Guinness PRO12.
Connacht may not have quite reached the heights of last season but Leinster currently top the table and are looking to rubberstamp their place in the play-offs, in addition to taking another big step towards an all-important home semi-final.
What’s at stake?
Connacht may not be on track to retain the Guinness PRO12 title they won so brilliantly last season, but their game against Leinster this weekend means they could have an impact on who succeeds them as league champions.
Depending on results elsewhere, Leinster could lock up either a guaranteed semi-final place or even a home semi-final.
A win in Galway could secure a home semi-final if Ospreys don’t win their Judgement Day match against Cardiff Blues, and Scarlets fail to take maximum points from their game against Newport Gwent Dragons.
Leinster will still of course remember last year’s final, where Connacht triumphed 20-10 at BT Murrayfield, and despite reversing that result at home in Round 7 this term, Leo Cullen’s men will also be desperate for a Guinness PRO12 double over their former conquerors.
Connacht team news:
Connacht captain John Muldoon will play his 300th game for the province; the 34-year-old – who has started 23 games already this season – leads the team featuring four changes from last weekend.
Craig Ronaldson is recalled to start in the midfield with Bundee Aki for the visit of the Guinness PRO12 table-toppers, while Jack Carty is handed the reins at fly-half.
Dave Heffernan and Ireland international Finlay Bealham are named in the front row, in an otherwise unchanged forward pack.
Leinster team news:
Cullen has made 11 changes to the starting XV from last weekend’s last-gasp win over Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, with Rhys Ruddock moving to No.8 to captain the side.
Dominic Ryan comes at blindside flanker with Josh van der Flier once again starting at openside, while an all-new tight five includes Ross Molony, Hayden Triggs, Cian Healy, James Tracy and Mike Ross.
Zane Kirchner and Rory O’Loughlin are the only two backs retained from last weekend’s win, with Noel Reid, Dave Kearney and Adam Byrne coming in, while Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne make up the half-back pairing.
Pat Lam said: “It’s great to be back at the Sportsground in front of our home support after a number of weeks on the road.
“Leinster are flying high at the top of the PRO12 table as well as in Europe, and we know we are coming up against a tough side stacked with quality players.
“But that just adds to the excitement for us as a team. We are really looking forward to this game and the chance to put in a huge performance for ourselves, for our supporters and for John Muldoon on a special day for him.”
Leinster wing Dave Kearney admits there will be players within the squad looking to push their cause for selection for the side’s European Rugby Champions Cup semi-final against Clermont next weekend.
“For me it is just getting back out on the pitch, getting as much game-time and opportunities as I can and put my hand up for selection because we have a very tough run-in,” he said.
“It is just a tough place to go. Connacht and the supporters, in particular, whenever we come, they love it. It is always one of the toughest spots away in the PRO12.
“We know how tough it’s going to be. It is 2014 since we won there. Hopefully, we can change that.”
Key battle: Tiernan O’Halloran v Dave Kearney
Kearney is coming into the Leinster side on the wing, but is well aware of the threat posed by Connacht’s full-back Tiernan O’Halloran having seen his attacking capabilities first hand in the past.
“I played with Tiernan a couple of times with Emerging (Ireland),” he adds.
“We all know how good a player he is, how skilful he is, how much of an attacking threat he is for Connacht.
“He cuts good lines, great lines. He is naturally a very good athlete, good footballer. You can tell he’s got good skill. He reacts to the game. He makes good decisions and he reads the game really well.”
Key stat: Connacht have lost just once to Leinster in Galway in the last four encounters: 8-16 in January 2014.
Did you know? Connacht’s only defeat at the Sportsground in any competition since September was to Munster on 31 December.
Connacht top points scorer: Jack Carty – 70. Top try scorer: Niyi Adeolokun – 6
Leinster top points scorer: Isa Nacewa – 85. Top try scorer: Joey Carbery – 8
Overall Guinness PRO12 head to head record:
Played 29, Connacht won 8, Leinster won 21.
At Sportsground, 7.35pm Live on TG4
Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 62nd competition game)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Davies (WRU), Joy Neville (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU)
TMO: Neil Paterson (SRU)
Leinster head coach Leo Cullen took a huge risk to rest his big-name stars but the gamble paid off in style with a hard-fought bonus point win over Connacht.
The league leaders made 11 changes from the side that started last weekend’s narrow win against the Ospreys, with a totally new-look front five.
When these teams met earlier in the season, Leinster won 24-13 at the RDS Arena to avenge their defeat by Connacht in last season’s Guinness PRO12 final at BT Murrayfield.
And this 37-24 away victory guarantees a prized home semi-final in the quest to go one better this season.
However, they certainly did not have it all their own way in an entertaining encounter that remained close until the screw was turned mid-way through the second half.
Craig Ronaldson put Connacht ahead with a well-threaded penalty after less than a minute before the visitors rallied from their early slumber.
Two tries in just four minutes was an impressive signal of intent with Zane Zirchner followed over the line by Adam Bryne who picked off a pass and ran it in, Ross Bryne then providing the extras.
Connacht are stranded in mid-table but they still had plenty of spirit for the fight at the Galway Sportsground – until their rivals proved just too strong in the closing stages.
Ronaldson converted a Danie Poolman try and notched another three penalties before the break while Rory O’Loughlin grabbed Leinster’s second score, Luke McGrath’s break splitting the hosts apart before the left wing finished.
However, the half-time score of 19-20 was a fair reflection of a clash in which any result had long looked possible.
After the restart the hosts briefly took control, Dave Heffernan taking advantage as the ball was spread wide to break the Leinster rearguard.
However, Leinster aren’t odds-on favourites to win a record fifth PRO12 title – and their first since 2014 – without a good reason.
And they hit back with 17 unanswered points to claim the victory.
Just three minutes after Heffernan’s score, Rhys Ruddock finished from close range to bank the bonus point.
Byrne converted the extras with ease and then performed the same task after Barry Daly’s try had put the match beyond reach.
Byrne then completed his ten point contribution with his second penalty in the closing stages.
The Guinness PRO12 Final takes place on May 27 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin.
Fans can guarantee their place by booking their tickets via www.ticketmaster.ie
Further information: www.pro12rugby.com/final