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Newport Gwent Dragons vs Leinster Rugby
Rodney Parade, Newport,
Friday, 1st March 2013, 19:00

Television: The Blackout is back, not televised.

All in all, it was a pretty satisfying round of games for Leinster last weekend. Glasgow beat Ulster to re-open the race for first place and Treviso surprisingly thumped Munster to really damage their play-off chances. Best of all though was Leinster's win over the Scarlets. With the Scarlets having named a seemingly stronger team on paper, including an almost first-choice pack, Leinster looked set for a tough, tight battle.

However the Leinster pack totally dominated their opponents in the set-piece and especially at the breakdown. Considering they left 14 points behind them in missed kicks, it showed their dominance that they still won by 27 points. It was a nice bit of payback for the many Leinster players who were on the team that was hammered away to the Scarlets in the first match of the season.

The period of games in February and March played during and around the Six Nations is always a tricky time for a Leinster coach to negotiate. Obviously the starting internationals are gone for the duration, but added to that are the constant doubts over the availability of Ireland squad players. Some may train with Ireland all week but then be made available for Leinster at the last minute. Then it's a question of including them or going with the Leinster team that's been training together all week. So coaches are often sending out mixed teams with disrupted preparations and the results can naturally suffer.

This season however, Leinster have three wins from three games, two of them with bonus points. If they can beat the Dragons this Friday, they'll complete a 100% record over the time period for the first time since the number of fixtures over the Six Nations were increased with the addition of the Italian teams. They need the win too to keep up with Ulster and Glasgow who both should win handily enough this weekend.

Ulster's lead has been cut to five points, but they have a much easier run-in than Leinster, playing only one top-six team, while Leinster have to play four of the top six, including Ulster. Realistically Leinster will probably need to win all their remaining games to take top spot from them, even allowing for all the injury problems the Ulstermen have. But Leinster do have great momentum at the moment and they'll be looking to keep it going tomorrow evening.

They take on a Dragons team who are currently short on confidence. They did manage to beat Zebre by a point last week, their first away win of the season. However, the week before they suffered a home defeat that sent shock waves around the league, going down 60-3 to Glasgow. It was the biggest home defeat in league history and it was all the more surprising that it came at Rodney Parade. Though the Dragons have rarely been a top team, they've always been hard to beat at home and have taken several big scalps there over the years. Leinster have certainly never found it an easy place to visit. Though they won there in the past two seasons, both were tight, scrappy games and before that they lost on their three previous visits.

There does seem to be an air of despair about the region at the moment and they're currently second last in the table with only five wins all season. They did the double against winless Zebre and their only other wins came at home to fellow strugglers Connacht, Treviso and Edinburgh. They had no joy in the Amlin Challenge Cup either, getting beaten home and away by both Bayonne and Wasps and only winning against Italian club side Mogliano.

Coach Darren Edwards is getting some criticism from supporters but doesn't appear to be working with a huge amount either. Over the last few seasons, they've lost most of their best players like Luke Charteris, Aled Brew and Jason Tovey either to France or the other Welsh regions. Their star flanker Dan Lydiate is off the France at the end of the season, mostly likely to play with Jonny Sexton at Racing Metro and there are also rumours Toby Faletau might be off too. With financial problems still a worry, the whole future of the region has been called into question too. With all this going on, it would be tough for any coach to motivate a side.

Edwards has named a team showing three changes from the side that won last weekend. Young Jack Dixon comes in for the injured Ashley Smith in the centre and he partners Pat Leach. Adam Hughes and Hallam Amos are the wings and former Scarlet Dan Evans is at full back. Jonathan Evans comes in for his namesake Wayne Evans at scrum-half to partner Steffan Jones. The only change to the pack is hooker Sam Parry who comes in for Hugh Gustafson and with props Nathan Buck and Phil Price they make up a very young front row. Jevon Groves scored a try last week on his first start of the season in the second row and he once again partners Ian Nimmo. Lewis Evans captains the team from the back row alongside Ieuan Jones and Nic Cudd.

For Leinster it's all change as Joe Shmidt keeps only four of the starters from the Scarlets match. Luke Fitzgerald is back from the Ireland squad and his inclusion at full back means Dave Kearney moves to the right wing with Fionn Carr keeping his place on the left after an impressive outing last week. There's an all new centre pairing in the fit-again Brendan Macken and Fergus McFadden, starting his first game at inside centre since October. Ian Madigan and Eoin Reddan form a potent half-back pairing.

In the pack, it's an all new front five and academy prop Jack O'Connell makes his first senior start at loosehead prop. Sean Cronin and Jamie Hagan make up the rest of the front row. After coming on as replacement last week, Mark Flanagan makes his first start of the season alongside his cousin Devin Toner in the second row. The back row is the least changed unit of the team with just Rhys Ruddock coming in for Jordi Murphy at number eight. Dominic Ryan and Shane Jennings, who skippers the side, retain their shirts from last week.

On form Leinster should win this one handily but they've got to approach the game with caution. After the humiliation of the Glasgow defeat, the vocal and passionate local fans will demand the team respond with a performance that at least shows some pride. If Leinster go into the game anyway complacent they could find themselves sucked into a battle. However, if they show their opponents respect and take a professional approach, their extra class out wide should see them home with something to spare.

Team Lineups

Newport Gwent Dragons

Leinster Rugby
Teams Dan Evans
15 Luke Fitzgerald
Adam Hughes
14 Dave Kearney
Pat Leach
13 Brendan Macken
Jack Dixon
12 Fergus McFadden
Hallam Amos
11 Fionn Carr
Steffan Jones
10 Ian Madigan
Jonathan Evans
9 Eoin Reddan

Ieuan Jones
1 Jack O'Connell
Nic Cudd
2 Sean Cronin
Lewis Evans (C)
3 Jamie Hagan
Jevon Groves
4 Mark Flanagan
Ian Nimmo
5 Devin Toner
Nathan Buck
6 Domimic Ryan
Sam Parry
7 Shane Jennings (C)
Phil Price
8 Rhys Ruddock

Replacements Hugh Gustafson
16 Aaron Dundon
Aaron Coundley
17 Jack McGrath
Dan Way
18 Michael Bent
Rob Sidoli
19 Leo Cullen
Adam Jones
20 Jordi Murphy
Wayne Evans
21 John Cooney
Tom Prydie
22 Andrew Goodman
Will Harries
3 Eoin O'Malley

Not Considered
due to Injury

Dan Lydiate,
Hywel Stoddart,
Steve Jones,
Tonderai Chavhanga,
Andy Tuilagi,
Tom Brown,
Mike Poole,
Darren Waters,
Ashley Smith

Richardt Strauss,
Damian Browne,
Quinn Roux,
Colm O'Shea,
Adam Byrne,
Dan Leavy,
Edward Byrne,
Brian Byrne,
Isa Nacewa,
Heinke van der Merwe,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Isaac Boss
Officials Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Leighton Hodges, Sean Brickell (both WRU),
Citing Commissioner: Gwyn Bowden (WRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-02-28