Leinster's big-name bench to look set to swing it in Connacht
Guinness PRO12: Connacht v Leinster
(Saturday, 5.15pm, Sportsground, live on TG4 & Sky Sports 1)
THE top two collide at the Sportsground on Saturday, with Leinster looking to maintain their stranglehold over their provincial rivals.
The men from the east have won five of their last six meetings with table-toppers Connacht, and have won all three of their inter-provincial derbies so far this season. Their hopes of improving that record are done no harm by the return of Luke Fitzgerald for a 150th Leinster cap, and the presence of a host of internationals in their matchday squad.
Fitzgerald missed the whole of the Six Nations after suffering a knee ligament injury ahead of Ireland’s opener with Wales back in February. He and Fergus McFadden take the wing slots, with Isa Nacewa moving to full-back in a strong unit.
Their depth of talent in the forwards is evident from naming six front-row internationals. Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss and Tadhg Furlong start, with Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath and Mike Ross among the replacements.
Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Eoin Reddan are also on Leo Cullen’s bench, sending out a strong signal of their intentions as they look to bounce back from last weekend’s defeat by Glasgow.
Connacht, by contrast, are without Ultan Dillane, who picked up a shoulder injury on Ireland duty and hasn’t yet recovered. Robbie Henshaw is only fit for a place on the bench, while Finlay Bealham - who has featured in every Connacht game this season - is also held in reserve ahead of a potential 50th cap.
They have thrown academy centre Peter Robb in alongside Bundee Aki in midfield, and he will come up against fellow greenhorn Garry Ringrose: “I have a lot of respect for who Leinster are and what they have achieved. There is a lot of quality right across the squad and I believe Leo [Cullen], in his first season as head coach, has done a tremendous job,” said Connacht head coach Pat Lam.
“We are expecting a pretty physical and fired up opposition. As a team who have history of winning at this stage of the season, it’s going to take a massive collective effort from us to come out on top.
“There’s certainly a huge buzz around this game tomorrow and we’re all really looking forward to it - it doesn’t get much better than playing in front of a sold-out Sportsground. Staying focused and channelling that excitement and energy into our structures and systems will give us the best chance of getting the points on offer.”
Connacht are on a six-game winning run, and have taken bonus points from five of those victories, which sees them top the table heading into the home stretch. They’ve lost just once at home, when Nick Williams’ late try snatched the points for Ulster in their St. Stephen’s Day clash.
Connacht have never won more games, accumulated more points or scored more tries up to this point of a season, but it will all be for nothing if it falls away now. They are sure to provide a physical test for Leinster, but the strength of the visitors’ bench should tip the scales their way.
Connacht: T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, N White; Q Roux, A Muldowney; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon; Replacements: D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, A Browne, E McKeon, C Blade, S O’Leary, R Henshaw
Leinster: I Nacewa; F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te’o, L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, L McGrath; C Healy, R Strauss, T Furlong; R Molony, H Triggs; D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock; Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, M Ross, D Toner, J Heaslip, E Reddan, N Reid, Z Kirchner