Runaway Conference B leaders Leinster will look to keep their good recent form going when they host Isuzu Southern Kings in the Guinness PRO14 on Friday evening (kick-off 7.55pm GMT at the RDS Arena).
Leinster currently have a 22-point lead atop the conference, whereas their South African visitors – who lost 43-0 to Munster a week ago – are currently bottom of the pile.
What’s at stake?
Leinster’s Guinness PRO14 Finals Series place is all-but secured thanks to their huge advantage at the top but they will be looking to continue a streak that has seen them lose just one Guinness PRO14 match since Round Two.
The Leinstermen have also won their last five matches in all competitions, four of those with maximum points, and have beaten the Kings in each of the three previous meetings between the sides.
Kings are yet to record an away victory since they joined the Guinness PRO14 at the start of last season but although they’re bottom of Conference B, they are level on points with the Dragons just above them – meaning any points at the RDS Arena could lift them above the Welsh side.
Team news (Leinster)
Ronan Kelleher will make his Leinster debut at hooker as one of seven personnel changes made by Leo Cullen from the side that beat Zebre a week ago.
Kelleher, younger brother of Connacht back Cian Kelleher, only turned 21 last month and is in his second year with the Leinster academy.
He’ll be in the front row with Ed Byrne – who comes in for Jack McGrath at loosehead – and Andrew Porter, while Mick Kearney replaces Scott Fardy in the second row.
The back row remains unchanged but there are four further alterations in the backline as Hugh O’Sullivan starts at scrum-half instead of Jamison Gibson-Park, Noel Reid comes into the centres and James Lowe and Fergus McFadden start on the wings.
Two positional switches see Conor O’Brien move from inside to outside centre, while Barry Daly shifts from the wing to full-back.
Team news (Isuzu Southern Kings)
Ulrich Beyers and Sarel Pretorius will earn their first starts for Isuzu Southern Kings as two of five changes to the starting XV that lost 43-0 to Munster last time out.
Beyers comes in at full-back for Masixole Banda, while veteran scrum-half Pretorius replaces Stefan Ungerer – both rotational changes.
Normal skipper JC Astle has been struggling with flu and is only fit enough for the bench, meaning Stephan Greeff comes into the second row and hooker Michael Willemse will be captain.
The other two changes are also in the pack as former Junior Springbok prop Alulutho Tshakweni starts at loosehead instead of veteran Schalk Ferreira and Henry Brown is at blindside flanker as Stephan de Wit drops out of the 23.
Leinster No.8 Caelan Doris said: “This period of the season is great for some of the younger guys, senior academy players, when the internationals are away to get that week-on-week run of games.
“My focus is on performing well, getting opportunities here and hopefully they’ll come in the bigger games down the line.
“It’s a big step up to senior level – bigger guys, less space, more organised defences. I always look to run into the space, not the man, but there is less of that.
“Obviously, the players are better defenders, they make better decisions, so often you’re running into two defenders as well, so that was probably a bit of a challenge at first, but I’m getting a little more used to it as the season progresses.”
Kings head coach Deon Davids said: “We are far from being happy with the amount of penalties and cards we conceded against Munster, and we kept that in mind with our discussion around the matchday 23 for this week.
“The players know clearly where they stand and in what areas of their game we seek improvements.
“It was encouraging to see a good start against Munster – we were quite physical and created a lot of momentum, however we were also our own enemy by giving the momentum away at crucial times.
“We are fortunate to have Michael Willemse taking over the captaincy role – something that is not strange or new to him. He is part of a good leadership group within the team.”
Michael Willemse v Ronan Kelleher
It’s youth against experience when it comes to the starting hookers at the RDS Arena as Michael Willemse captains the Southern Kings, while 21-year-old Ronan Kelleher makes his first start for Leinster.
Kelleher’s lineout and scrummaging prowess will be tested to the full on his first senior start but he will also need to be wary of his opposite number’s ability as an open-field runner.
Willemse made three clean breaks and beat four defenders during last week’s defeat to Munster – numbers more befitting a winger than a hooker – and will provide a stern introduction to the Guinness PRO14 to his young Irish counterpart.
Leinster have won their last 11 home games at all venues since Benetton Rugby beat them in the Guinness PRO14 at the RDS Arena last April.
Did you know?
Leinster have met South African opponents on four occasions in the Guinness PRO14, winning all three they played against Southern Kings but losing to Cheetahs in Bloemfontein in September 2017.
Isuzu Southern Kings: Ulrich Beyers, Yaw Penxe, Meli Rokoua, Berton Klaasen, Bjorn Basson, Bader Pretorius, Sarel Pretoriusl; Alulutho Tshakweni, Michael Willemse (c), De-Jay Terblanche, Stephan Greeff, Andries Van Schalkwyk, Henry Brown, Martinus Burger, Ruaan Lerm
Replacements: Alandre Van Rooyen, Schalk Ferreira, Pieter Scholtz, John-Charles Astle, Andisa Ntsila, Stefan Ungerer, Tertius Kruger, Masixole Banda
Leinster: Barry Daly, Fergus McFadden, Conor O’Brien, Noel Reid, James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Hugh O’Sullivan; Ed Byrne, Rónan Kelleher, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony (c), Mick Kearney, Josh Murphy, Max Deegan, Caelan Doris
Replacements: James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Jack Dunne, Scott Fardy, Paddy Patterson, Jimmy O’Brien, Rory O’Loughlin (56)
TV: At RDS Arena, Dublin, 7.55pm. Live on Freesports, Super Sport 1 and eir Sport 1.
Referee: Sam Grove-White (SRU)
Assistant Referees: George Clancy (IRFU), Ian Kenny (SRU)
TMO: Colin Stanley (IRFU); Citing Commissioner: John Cole (IRFU)
Doubles for Noel Reid and Ed Byrne helped inspire Leinster to a big win over the Isuzu Southern Kings and build their lead at the top of the Conference B table.
Reid struck with the first try of the night and although the Kings replied through Bjorn Basson and Sarel Pretorius, Leinster finished the first half ahead after both Reid and Byrne completed their doubles.
The Kings scored a stunner after the restart through Ulrich Beyers but in a see-saw game Leinster fired back through Barry Daly, Andrew Porter and Max Deegan.
Patrick Patterson and Rory O’Loughlin came off the bench to add Leinster’s eighth and ninth, in a ruthless display from the champions that powers them on towards the Finals Series.
Leinster came flying out of the traps on home turf and got the game’s first try within six minutes, as a spell of pressure eventually saw Reid jink his way through the 22.
Ross Byrne converted but the Kings rallied and went back up the other end of the pitch, with a moment of magic coming out wide as wing Basson showed dazzling feat to get over in the corner.
On the quarter-mark the Kings then stunned the home crowd, piling on the pressure with a series of forward drives on the Leinster line, scrum-half Pretorius wriggling over underneath the powerful bigger men.
This only seemed to awaken the Leinster monster though and they stormed their way upfield just minutes later, with prop Ed Byrne proving unstoppable from three yards out.
The front rower re-gathered his energy and was at it again minutes later, pick-and-go’ing from a yard out and burrowing over for his second of the half.
Leinster led 19-12 and were almost kept quiet for the rest of the half, until slow forward drives suddenly accelerated at pace and Reid darted into the corner for his second.
With the score at 24-12 at the break the Kings signalled their intention with a wonderful try at the beginning of the 40, with fly-half Bader-Werner Pretorius breaking across halfway, taking the hit and feeding Beyers to race away.
In a punch-for-punch match though Leinster soon fired back, fighting their way into the 22 before a lovely offload found full-back Daly for the score.
And so with one prop on the scoresheet you knew the other one wouldn’t want to miss out, Leinster again surging up the pitch and Porter applying the finishing touch – with all 20 stone of him impossible to stop from a yard.
The hosts led 38-19 but continued to pile on the pressure right until the end, with Deegan getting his name on the scoresheet as he picked from a ruck and raced 30 metres to the line.
There was still time for Patterson and O’Loughlin to come on and add their name to the scorers, in a punishing second half from Leinster.