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Newport Gwent Dragons vs Leinster Rugby
Rodney Parade, Newport
Sunday 6th December 2009, 17:00

Television: Live Setanta Ireland

Leinster return to action this Sunday after an Autumn International campaign that was rewarding but costly. Leinster have three new internationals caps in Cian Healy, Jonny Sexton and Sean O'Brien, but unfortunately injuries have cost us Sexton in the short-term and Luke Fitzgerald for probably the rest of the season. Losing Fitzgerald, our top try scorer for the past two seasons is a huge setback but the cover we have in the back three softens the blow somewhat. In terms of Sexton though, options are a little thinner on the ground.

There have been stories that Leinster tried to sign Australia's Matt Giteau as a short-term replacement for Sexton but this was apparently blocked by the IRFU. Shaun Berne was named in the squad and was expected to start at out-half on Sunday but Michael Cheika has surprised people by naming young Ian McKinley at out-half and Berne isn't in the squad at all. This probably means Berne is simply being rested for next week but it certainly makes things interesting.

McKinley is one of thirteen changes from the Leinster team that started against Cardiff, the only survivors being CJ van der Linde and Malcolm O'Kelly. They make up an experienced front five with Ronnie McCormack, Devin Toner and Bernard Jackman, who captains the team for the first time, a deserved honour for such a whole-hearted player. In the backrow, Stephen Keogh brings hardened match experience at number eight, which will be needed as he has two rookie flankers beside him. Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock both make their senior debuts after they impressed for the 'A' team in the British and Irish cup. Both are hugely promising talents that will be worth watching.

Chris Keane partners McKinley at half-back and there's a another senior debutant in Eoin O'Malley who partners Fergus McFadden in the centre. Despite being a senior squad member since the beginning of last season, O'Malley has been haunted with injuries, which have delayed his full debut. It must have been tough for him not to feel like a forgotten man, especially in a province where exciting new backs seem to arrive in the academy by the truckload every season. He'll be looking to make up for lost time tomorrow.

There's more youth in the back three with Niall Morris making his first competitive start at full back and Dave Kearney only his third starting appearance on the right wing. The more experienced Simon Keogh makes his first start of the season on the left wing. There's three more potential senior debutants on the bench in South African hooker Richardt Strauss, flanker Paul Ryan and wing Michael Keating.

Overall it's a pretty callow team and they'll be up against it as the Dragons have been having quite a decent season, especially at home where they're undefeated. In fact Rodney Parade has become quite a fortress again for the Dragons, and they haven't been beaten there since Munster beat them back in March.

The days when the Dragons were the whipping boys of the league seem to be gone. They've made themselves a very hard team to beat and have been adept at picking up wins too, four so far in the Magners League. This leaves them in sixth place in the table, but only five points behind leaders Leinster. With captain Tom Willis still out injured, Luke Charteris leads the team from the second row, after a fine Autumn series with Wales. The Dragons have a nice mix of promising young players like Dan Lydiate, Jason Tovey and Wayne Evans and experienced veterans like James Arlidge, Rob Sidoli and Richard Fussell. They've a strong side out and will start as heavy favourites.

With the six day turnaround before returning to Wales next weekend for the crucial Scarlets Heineken Cup tie, plus the need to rest players under the IRFU player management programme, Cheika appears ready to sacrifice this game for the greater good. That's one way of looking at it, however another way would to be think that this Leinster team has nothing to lose. As nothing will be expected of them, this team should play with freedom and be told to let loose and have a go at the opposition. The front five should be good enough to generate decent first phase ball and the young flankers and backs will be full of running so just let them at it.

With the right attitude, this team might just surprise a few people.

Team Lineups

Newport Gwent Dragons

Leinster Rugby
Teams Jason Tovey
15 Niall Morris
Aled Brew
14 David Kearney
Rhodri Gomer Davies
13 Eoin O'Malley
Tom Riley
12 Fergus McFadden
Richard Fussell
11 Simon Keogh
James Arlidge
10 Ian McKinley
Wayne Evans
9 Chris Keane

Hugh Gustafson
1 Ronan McCormack
Steve Jones
2 Bernard Jackman (C)
Pat Palmer
3 CJ van der Linde
Rob Sidoli
4 Devin Toner
Luke Charteris (C)
5 Malcolm O'Kelly
Dan Lydiate
6 Rhys Ruddock
Gavin Thomas
7 Dominic Ryan
Grant Webb
8 Stephen Keogh

Replacements Duane Goodfield
16 Richardt Strauss
Peter Bracken
17 Mike Ross
Haoni MacDonald
18 Trevor Hogan
Adam Jones
19 Paul Ryan
Martyn Thomas
Paul O'Donohoe
Will Harries
21 Ian Madigan
Alex Walker
22 Michael Keating

Not Considered
due to Injury

Luke Fitzgerald
Stan Wright
Jonathan Sexton
Officials Referee: Simon McDowell (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Phil Fear (WRU), Sean Brickell (WRU)
TMO: Neil Ballard (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-12-04