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Leinster Rugby vs Connacht Rugby
Guinness Pro12 Round 11
RDS Arena, Dublin,
Friday, 1st January 2016, 17:00

Television: Live - TG4

Well that was a nice surprise!

It's fair to say there wasn't a huge amount of confidence amongst the Leinster travelling support on the way down to Limerick last Sunday. Though Munster were also struggling for form, the general consensus was that home advantage might edge a tight contest for them. However Leinster produced their best performance of the season to win by seventeen points and suddenly things are looking a little brighter for the new year.

The game will probably be most remembered for the way Garry Ringrose announced himself to the rugby world with the dazzling break for Isa Nacewa's early try. Ringrose went on to have a solid game in attack and defence and other young guns Josh van der Flier, James Tracey and Ross Molony made key contributions off the bench. Yet this game was notable for the return to form of several more established players. Eoin Reddan and Ian Madigan both had their best games of the season, running the game beautifully. The back row of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Dominic Ryan were also collectively and individually excellent.

It was great to see Leinster scoring tries again, after a previous run of just four in the previous six games, but the win was based on the solid set-piece and really strong defence. Munster actually had around 60% of possession so Leinster had a lot of defending to do but the defence was aggressive and consistent. Devin Toner and Heaslip led the tackle count with 20 each, with Madigan one behind on 19, a fairly remarkable number for a fly-half. It's that sort of defence that you can build a championship winning side around.

With European rugby not a consideration for Leinster for the rest of the season, it's all about the Pro12 now and the win in Limerick has left them four points off top place with a game in hand. If they can win their next two games against Connacht tomorrow evening and then away to the Ospreys the following week, then they will be in great shape going into the block of games during the Six Nations Championship.

Connacht are a team that will demand the utmost respect from Leinster though. For the first three months of the season, they were the best Irish province. They won five out of their six league games during the World Cup but then continued this form by winning all their games in November, culminating in a historic first win in Thomond Park over Munster in 29 years. That game was remarkable not only for the result but for the way Connacht played with backs and forwards showing the sort of handling skills and ambition rarely seen this season in Leinster or Munster.

As with last season though, the win over Munster signalled a downturn in results and Connacht have since lost three of their last four games in all competitions. It is fair to say though that, this season the downturn in results has had more to do with their ridiculously lengthy injury list. Things got so bad that in their Challenge Cup match away to Newcastle, they could only send a squad of 22 players. Things have eased a little since then but they're still missing a lot of key men.

Their coach Pat Lam has been boosted by the return to fitness of two of his New Zealand contingent in hooker Tom McCartney and openside Jake Heenan. Both players have been out for a long time but could be hugely influential if they can adapt to the pace of the game quickly. The other change is Andrew Browne coming in for Ultan Dillane in the second row, where he partners Aly Muldowney, one of Connacht's players of the season. There's a combination of youth and experience in props Finlay Bealham and Ireland international Nathan White. Eoghan Masterson is having an excellent season at number eight and John Muldoon once again captains the team from blindside, as he seems to have been doing since the beginning of time.

The unchanged backline sees Tiernan O'Halloran start once again at full back. O'Halloran has had a frustrating couple of seasons since he burst on the scene but he's come into his own this season and is in great form. The Connacht three-quarter line features three players who were recruited out of the Leinster club scene in Niyi Adeolokun, Craig Ronaldson and Matt Healy plus another Kiwi in Bundee Aki who has been in cracking form. Young half-backs Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion complete the side and Marmion in particular will want to show Joe Schmidt he's ready for action in the Six Nations.

After Leinster's bruising win on Sunday, and with only a five day turnaround, Leo Cullen has wisely shuffled the deck and named a side showing eleven changes to the team that started in Thomond. Garry Ringrose keeps the number 13 jersey but it's interesting to see Ben Te'o, who is off to Worchester at the end of the season, selected at inside centre. His direct carrying and offloading could open up some gaps for Ringrose and the outside backs. Rob and Dave Kearney come into the back three alongside Fergus McFadden and Johnny Sexton and Luke McGrath are both fit to start at half-back.

Jack McGrath and Devin Toner retain their places in the front five where Richardt Strauss, Marty Moore and Mike McCarthy come in. There's a whole new back row in Rhys Ruddock, who captains the team, Josh van der Flier and Jordi Murphy.

It promises to be a fascinating contest. Connacht will travel confident that they can secure their first win in Dublin since 2002. Leinster though won't want to lose the momentum they've built up with the win over Munster. It promises to be another tight, hard-fought battle but Leinster may just have enough to nick the win.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Teams Rob Kearney
15 Tiernan O'Halloran
Fergus McFadden 14 Niyi Adeolokun
Garry Ringrose 13 Bundee Aki
Ben Te'o 12 Craig Ronaldson
Dave Kearney 11 Matt Healy
Johnny Sexton 10 Jack Carty
Luke McGrath 9 Kieran Marmion

Jack McGrath 1 Finlay Bealham
Richardt Strauss 2 Tom McCartney
Marty Moore 3 Nathan White
Devin Toner 4 Aly Muldowney
Mike McCarthy
5 Andrew Browne
Rhys Ruddock (C)
6 John Muldoon (C)
Josh van der Flier
7 Jake Heenan
Jordi Murphy 8 Eoghan Masterson

Replacements James Tracy 16 Dave Heffernan
Peter Dooley 17 Ronan Loughney
Michael Bent 18 Rodney Ah You
Ross Molony 19 Ultan Dillane
Sean O'Brien 20
Sean O'Brien
Eoin Reddan21 Ian Porter
Ian Madigan 22 AJ MacGinty
Zane Kirchner 23 Rory Parata

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jack Conan,
Edward Byrne,
Mick Kearney,
Hayden Triggs,
Noel Reid,
Isaac Boss,
Cian Healy

Denis Buckley,
JP Cooney,
Ben Marshall,
Quinn Roux,
James Connolly,
Nepia Fox-Matamua,
Eoin McKeon,
Dave McSharry,
Robbie Henshaw,
Peter Robb,
Conor Finn,
Danie Poolman,
Darragh Leader
Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU, 75th competition game),
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Mark Patton (both IRFU),
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU),
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2015-12-31