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Dragons vs Leinster Rugby
Guinness Pro14, Conference B, Round 1
Rodney Parade, Newport,
Saturday, 2nd September, 2017, 15:15

Live on Sky Sports

So farewell Pro12 and hello to the Pro14!!!

It's been quite a tumultuous summer for the league. Two South African teams discarded by Super Rugby have been re-routed into the league with the Celts and Italians. They've paid their way in to the tune of six million euro a year. Overall the move seems to be a stalking horse for South African teams to get away from their SANZAR partners and get into the more lucrative European club rugby market. These two teams may not be the last South African franchises to make the move.

The common consent seems to be that the Pro12 had to do something, such was the chronic state of the competition. Financially they will benefit for sure, but an extra half million a year each is peanuts to the likes of the big French and English clubs. It was always fashionable to badmouth the Pro12, especially in the Irish media, but it was arguably the most consistently entertaining league in Europe. After years of being dominated by the big three of Leinster, Munster and Ospreys, three teams have broken out in the last three years to win the league in Glasgow, Connacht and Scarlets. All three did so playing attractive, ambitious rugby. Hopefully the changes to the league won't dent that attacking verve.

Instead of the simple home and away format we'd grown so used to, we're back to conferences for the first time since the early days of the Celtic League when they had nine Welsh club sides, four Irish provinces and two Scottish teams split into two uneven groups. The league today is pretty much unrecognisable from then. Of course, making these changes over a summer have put teams under pressure. After their home match against Cardiff next week, Leinster travel for a double header against the two South African teams and there were murmurs that they were struggling to find available flights for the whole squad at such short notice. Whether the new format will be better remains to be see, it will certainly be different.

Before the exotic trip to Africa though, Leinster kick off their league campaign is the slightly more mundane environs of Newport in Wales. There they will bump into an old friend in the shape of Bernard "Birch" Jackman, who was appointed the Dragons Head Coach during the summer. Jackman's Leinster career was relatively short but was very successful and he was voted Leinster's player of the season when they won the then Magners league in 2008 before starting in the first Heineken Cup winning team in 2009.

Since then, he spent six mostly happy years climbing his way up the coaching ladder in Grenoble but it ended acrimoniously after he fell out with the local players. He was sacked as director of rugby in March and the club was relegated but he's got a new start in Wales on the back of a recommendation from Warren Gatland, his former coach at Connacht.

The Dragons were taken over by the WRU last May in a bid to stop them folding. There still isn't a massive amount of money around though and their only signings of note were former Leinster full back Zane Kirchner and that great waste of talent Gavin Henson. Jackman has named his first team and Kirchner and Henson both start at full back and out-half respectively. Ashton Hewitt, Tyler Morgan and Hallam Amos all feature in a decent three quarter line and one of the "temp Lions" from the summer, Cory Hill, captains the team from the second row.

For Leinster it's unfortunately been another summer of bitter introspection after they finished their campaign on a horrible performance for the second year running. This time it was losing a semi-final at home to the Scarlets in a game they played against fourteen men for forty odd minutes. Their much vaunted attacking game which had produced hatfuls of tries throughout the season ultimately fell apart when it really mattered. The defence, which had been shaky all season, was cut apart by the Scarlets in the first half and the Welsh team went on to destroy Munster in the final in the Aviva stadium with some outstanding play. They were deserved champions, but Leinster will still be gutted at the way they lost.

Despite that disappointment, the coaching team led by Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster ultimately signed new contracts. However, you get the feeling another season without a trophy might be too much for the powers that be.

There's reasons to be optimistic for the season coming of course. Scott Fardy will hopefully provide the sort of grit and hard-worn class in the engine room to recall the impact of Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn in past days. Kiwi winger James Lowe, who will arrive in late October, is an extravagant talent, even if he didn't look it on the two games he played against the Lions. But arguably there is even more excitement about the latest batch of youngsters to emerge from the Leinster academy. After losing most of last season to injury, second row James Ryan became only the second Leinster player to make their Ireland debut before their senior Leinster debut when he was capped against the USA and Japan during the summer (a certain B. O'Driscoll was the first). He looks completely at home at this level and he could make a big impact this season.

Tighthead prop convert Andrew Porter also got a couple of caps under his belt on the summer tour and he'll look to continue his development. Max Deegan only got a couple of small tastes of first team action last season but he's already shown his promise with three tries in the pre-season, although he's probably got the most competition for the number eight shirt with internationals Jamie Heaslip, Jordi Murphy and Jack Conan ahead of him in the queue. In the backs Jordan Larmour, who can play full back or wing, will look to be the breakout star out wide this season.

Of course the Lions tour had it's inevitable heavy price and we'll be lucky to see Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Sean O'Brien for the start of the European campaign, although Jack McGrath should be back a little earlier. Henshaw's injury is especially unfortunate as Leinster are experiencing something of an injury crisis in the centre with Tom Daly, Noel Reid and Garry Ringrose all out for varying lengths of time. It means that captain Isa Nacewa is named at inside centre with Rory O'Loughlin in the outside channel. The four young guns mentioned before all feature in the match day squad, two in the starting lineup and two on the bench. Jordan Larmour makes his senior Leinster debut on the left wing in a back three with Rob Kearney and Adam Byrne. Max Deegan makes his first Leinster start at number eight in a back row with Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier on the flanks. James Ryan will make his senior debut off the bench where he's joined by Andrew Porter.

Another Leinster debutant is Scott Fardy, who partners Devin Toner in the second row. Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Michael Bent make up a hugely experienced front row. Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park continue on from last week as the half backs.

Leinster stuffed the Dragons last season in Rodney Parade, but had lost on their last two visits before that, so they need to be wary. Leinster tend to be slow starters, especially when they're on the road. They certainly have the stronger team named but Leinster need to be sharp to avoid a banana skin against a side that Birch will certainly have well motivated.

Team Lineups


Leinster Rugby
Teams Zane Kirchner 15 Rob Kearney
Ashton Hewitt 14 Adam Byrne
Tyler Morgan 13 Rory O'Loughlin
Jack Dixon 12 Isa Nacewa (C)
Hallam Amos 11 Jordan Larmour
Gavin Henson 10 Ross Byrne
Charlie Davies 9 Jamison Gibson-Park

Brok Harris 1 Cian Healy
Elliot Dee 2 Sean Cronin
Leon Brown 3 Michael Bent
Matthew Screech 4 Devin Toner
Cory Hill (C) 5 Scott Fardy
James Thomas 6 Dan Leavy
James Benjamin 7 Josh van der Flier
Harri Keddie 8 Max Deegan

Replacements Rhys Buckley 16 James Tracy
Luke Garrett 17 Ed Byrne
Lloyd Fairbrother 18 Andrew Porter
Rynard Landman 19 James Ryan
Max Williams 20
Jack Conan
Tavis Knoyle 21 Nick McCarthy
Angus O'Brien 22 Cathal Marsh
Jared Rosser 23 Barry Daly

Not Considered
Due to Injury

Dave Kearney,
Peter Dooley,
Bryan Byrne,
Tom Daly,
Peadar Timmins,
Noel Reid,
Robbie Henshaw,
Johnny Sexton,
Tadhg Furlong,
Sean O'Brien,
Jamie Heaslip,
Garry Ringrose,
Fergus McFadden,
Jordi Murphy
Officials Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-09-15