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Connacht Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Guinness Pro14, Conference B, Round 21
Sportsground, Galway,
Saturday, 28th April 2018, 15:05

TV: Live on TG4

Last week pretty much went perfectly to plan.

The Leinster pack just bullied their Scarlets into submission and Tadhg Beirne was finally nullified at the breakdown. Now it's Bilbao and Racing 92 but Leinster will be quietly confident. Before that though it's one more inter-pro and Leinster will be looking to pull off a clean sweep of local battles by winning their sixth derby of the season. They take on a Connacht side who are coming off a terrible first season under Kieran Keane. They've only won six league games and if Zebre win and Connacht lose this Saturday, they face the prospect of finishing last in their pool, two years after they won the title.

They've had the odd bright moment beating Munster and thumping Ulster and in truth they also played very well in the RDS when losing narrowly to Leinster on New Year's Day. But too often they've been quiet insipid, especially in defence and losing twice to fellow strugglers Zebre pretty much sums up their season. But they'll still be a threat to Leinster on Saturday if for no other reason than it's John Muldoon's last game. The great Connacht servant is hanging up the boots after seventeen years of stellar service and the whole squad will rouse themselves to ensure he doesn't finish on a losing note.

For Leinster the game is almost meaningless in terms of the result. Mathematically the Scarlets can still catch them at the top of the table but there will need to a points difference turnaround of 124 points so it's fairly unlikely. However Leinster can't be too flippant about the match either. Last season they took on Ulster in their last regular match of the season who were also having a send-off for long-serving players. Leinster played like it didn't matter and duly lost in an awful performance. They brushed it off but the stink of that performance followed them into the semi-final against the Scarlets and we remember how that went.

After poor recent performances against the Ospreys and especially Benetton, there will be plenty of players in the wider squad who know this could be their last performance of the season and they'll want to finish with a big effort. Talking of finishes, two of Leinster's finest announced their retirement this week. Richardt Strauss has struggled in recent years with injury but in the Heineken Cup wins of 2011 and 2012 he had legitimate claims as the best hooker in Europe. His set-piece fundamentals were sound but what really set him apart was his pace and skills in the loose as well as his superb breakdown work. When he was diagnosed with a heart condition that required surgery but then made an early return in January 2014 the reception he received from the RDS crowd will live long in the memory. He won seventeen caps for his adopted country and though he retires at the relatively young age of 32, he's smart to walk away now and can look back at a stellar career.

He'll be accompanied out the exit door by Isa Nacewa who retires for the second time, but this one looks likely to stick. When it's all stacked up he has to be considered Leinster's greatest ever foreign player. It's a shame to hear he's heading back to New Zealand but you get the feeling he'll be back again in a coaching capacity at some point in the future. If there's one word to sum up Isa, it's "class". It simply dripped off him in everything he did on the field and off it. On the pitch he was a superb leader, a ferocious tackler and a man to come in a do a job pretty much anywhere in the backline. He never looked rushed or flustered, always making the right calls and making it look effortless. Off the pitch he was massively influential to both younger and older players as to how a professional rugby player should conduct themselves in terms of preparation, attitude and dealing with the public. He was a total gentleman and an example of a top sportsman who excelled at the game that no one has a bad word to say about. The years have finally caught up with him this season so his game-time has been limited but he's still capable of coming up with big plays such as his contribution for Garry Ringrose's try against Saracens.

He'll be missed but let's hope he's lifted one if not two trophies by the time he makes his exit.

He's rested again this weekend to prepare for the final in Bilbao and Leo Cullen has named a team with a completely new starting fifteen for this match. With all the talk about whether it will be Joey Carbery or Ross Byrne that will be bundled into a van by the Nucifora/Schmidt mob and driven up the M1 to be dumped on Ulster's doorstep, both of them start. Byrne takes the number ten shirt and partners Nick McCarthy while Carbery starts at full back with Barry Daly and James Lowe in the back three. After missing nearly the entire season with injury, there is a welcome returns for Carlow's Tom Daly who lines up in the centre with Noel Reid who will make his 100th Leinster appearance.

In the pack Jack McGrath again captains the team from loosehead and he'll hope things go better than they did against Benetton. James Tracy and Andrew Porter complete the front row while Ross Molony and Mick Kearney are in the boiler room. Max Deegan makes his first start at blindside to accommodate Jack Conan at eight and Peadar Timmins will make his final Leinster appearance at openside before leaving in the summer.

For Connacht Muldoon is named to make his 327th and final appearance skippering the team from number eight with Eoin McKeon and Jarrad Butler on either side of him on the flanks. There are two former Leinster players in Gavin Thornbury and Quinn Roux in the second row and Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt and Finlay Bealham make up a strong front row. Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion are the halves with Bundee Aki and another former Leinster player Tom Farrell, who has had a breakthrough season, named in the centre. The team is rounded out by the familiar and dangerous back three of Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun and Matt Healy.

On paper Connacht should really win this handily enough but you'd hope the Leinster team will have enough pride in their performance to do the inter-provincial clean sweep.

Team Lineups

Connacht Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Tiernan O'Halloran 15 Joey Carbery
Niyi Adeolokun 14 Barry Daly
Tom Farrell 13 Tom Daly
Bundee Aki 12 Noel Reid
Matt Healy 11 James Lowe
Jack Carty 10 Ross Byrne
Kieran Marmion 9 Nick McCarthy

Denis Buckley 1 Jack McGrath (C)
Shane Delahunt 2 James Tracy
Finlay Bealham 3 Andrew Porter
Gavin Thornbury 4 Ross Molony
Quinn Roux 5 Mick Kearney
Eoin McKeon 6 Max Deegan
Jarrad Butler 7 Peadar Timmins
John Muldoon (C) 8 Jack Conan

Replacements Tom McCartney 16 Sean Cronin
Peter McCabe 17 Cian Healy
Conor Carey 18 Michael Bent
Ultan Dillane 19 Devin Toner
Eoghan Masterson 20
Jordi Murphy
Caolin Blade 21 Jamison Gibson-Park
Craig Ronaldson 22 Jordan Larmour
Darragh Leader 23 Adam Byrne

Not Considered
due to Injury

Josh van der Flier,
Cathal Marsh,
Dave Kearney,
Sean O'Brien,
Rhys Ruddock,
Fergus McFadden,
Luke McGrath
Officials Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2018-04-27