Leinster play host to Connacht in an Inter-Pro clash that could yet be a preview for the Guinness PRO14 Final Series, with both teams currently in the top three in their respective conferences.
Defending champions Leinster have been absolutely flying this year, having lost just twice, and at the RDS Arena on Saturday at 7.45pm, they will face a Connacht side that have won five in a row.
What’s at stake?
Leinster are riding high in the league and can cement their place at the top of Conference B with victory over their provincial rivals.
But having won their last five games in all competitions, Connacht will enter the game with plenty of confidence of their own.
Currently third in Conference A, Andy Friend’s side can push their Guinness PRO14 Finals Series cause with only a second win away to Leinster since 1955.
Team news (Leinster)
It’s a much-changed Leinster side that will host Connacht, with Rhys Ruddock taking on the captaincy duties in a back row that also features Dan Leavy and youngster Caelan Doris.
Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne are the new half-back duo while Rory O’Loughlin keeps his spot at inside centre after a man-of-the-match display against Bath.
Team news (Connacht)
Andy Friend has made ten changes to the team that beat Perpignan last week as he looks to extend his side’s winning run.
Finlay Bealham, Ultan Dillane and Jarrad Butler are among those who return to the pack, while in the backs, Caolin Blade and Jack Carty are reunited in the half-backs.
There is also good news with the return of Bundee Aki on the bench for Connacht.
Leinster director of rugby Leo Cullen said: “I thought the players applied themselves well this time last year. It’s a tricky time of year because there are so many distractions – Christmas and all that goes on with that. Some guys have exams.
“It’s potentially a tricky time of year for us but lads are working hard.”
Connacht head coach Andy Friend said: “We have gone through a really good run with five wins in row, with real competition emerging in the squad.
“The win away in France last weekend keeps the confidence levels up and keeps that momentum going in the squad and throughout the organisation.
“We face a big challenge away to Leinster on Saturday. We know the depth they have and the quality in their squad, so we will need a huge performance to challenge them especially when they are at home.”
Key battle: Rhys Ruddock v Jarrad Butler
Where else to look but the battle of the captains in the back row?
Rhys Ruddock has regularly filled in for Jonathan Sexton as skipper this year for Leinster, and he provides some valuable experience along with Scott Fardy in the Leinster pack.
His combination of size and work-rate is hard to match but Jarrad Butler certainly will not be lacking in the latter. The Australian has done an admirable job taking over from John Muldoon and when he is playing well, Connacht tend to do the same.
Key stat: Leinster have lost just once in their last nine clashes with Irish opposition – but it was against Connacht in April when they were beaten 47-10 in Galway.
Did you know? Leinster have lost two games all season, by two points to the Scarlets and then a single point in Europe to Toulouse.
Leinster: 15. Hugo Keenan, 14. Adam Byrne, 13. Rory O’Loughlin, 12. Conor O’Brien, 11. Dave Kearney, 10. Ross Byrne, 9. Jamison Gibson-Park; 1. Peter Dooley, 2. Bryan Byrne, 3. Michael Bent, 4. Mick Kearney, 5. Scott Fardy, 6. Rhys Ruddock (c), 7. Dan Leavy, 8. Caelan Doris
Replacements: 16. Sean Cronin, 17. Ed Byrne, 18. Andrew Porter, 19. Ross Molony, 20. Max Deegan, 21. Hugh O’Sullivan, 22. Ciaran Frawley, 23. Noel Reid
Connacht: 15. Tiernan O’Halloran, 14. Cian Kelleher, 13. Kyle Godwin, 12. Tom Farrell, 11. Darragh Leader, 10. Jack Carty, 9. Caolin Blade; 1. Denis Buckley, 2. Tom McCartney, 3. Finlay Bealham, 4. Ultan Dillane, 5. Gavin Thornbury, 6. Jarrad Butler (c), 7. Colby Fainga’a, 8. Paul Boyle
Replacements: 16. Shane Delahunt, 17. Peter McCabe, 18. Dominic Robertson McCoy, 19. James Cannon, 20. Eoghan Masterson, 21. James Mitchell, 22. David Horwitz, 23. Bundee Aki
TV: At RDS Arena, Dublin, 7.45pm. Live on Premier Sports, eir Sport Tg4
Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey, Rob O’Sullivan (both IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Leinster denied Connacht a first away victory in Dublin since 2002 as Leo Cullen’s men staged a stunning late rally to battle back from 17 points down to win 33-29.
Andrew Porter fought his way over the line in the 82nd minute to prevent Andy Friend’s men from earning only a second ever victory in the capital since 1955.
Leinster had won eight of their last nine meetings, but 14 points from Jack Carty looked to have swung the tie in the favour of the Galway side before Porter was at hand to break Connacht hearts.
With Leinster shuffling their pack after their Champions Cup travels, Connacht looked the more fluid of the two sides early on and they took advantage thanks to the dab hand of an ex-Leinsterman.
Bundee Aki drew the Leinster pack, before switching the ball wide right leaving Cian Kelleher to slide across the whitewash for an early lead inside six minutes.
But Leinster hit back when Rob Kearney burst his way through to set up Jamison Gibson-Park, who found a gap and expertly threaded in Conor O’Brien to score his third try of the season.
Connacht continued to threaten, and they made it count when Tom Farrell’s pass was dispatched to Darragh Leader and on only his second Guinness PRO14 appearance he evaded two thunderous challenges to dive into the corner and score. Jack Carty kicked for two.
When Connacht turned over possession, it enabled the visitors to stretch their advantage when Carty sumptuously chipped over the Leinster backs before catching the ball and diving over to score.
The fly-half converted his try seven minutes before the break to send the western Ireland side into half-time with a 19-7 lead at the RDS Arena.
Leinster roared out the blocks after the break and within minutes they were chipping away at the scoreboard as Mick Kearney scrapped his way to the line for his first ever try for the men in blue.
But Connacht weren’t initially fazed, especially half back Carty who dazzled his way through a slim gap in the line before showing the presence of mind to lay in Caolin Blade to score a bonus point. Carty duly converted.
Carty sent the Galway men two converted tries clear with a penalty 16 minutes from time, but the hosts didn’t give in easily as replacement Sean Cronin powered his way over to set up a grandstand finish. Ross Byrne added the extras.
Then when Connacht were unable to clear their lines, Leinster broke and Dan Leavy snuck across the line to cut the deficit to only three points.
Drama ensued as relentless Leinster pressure eventually told as Porter summoned all his muscle to throw himself over the try line and seal a sensational win.
21 Dec 2018