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RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday 27th of March, 2010, 16:30

Television: Live Setanta Sports 1

Now that the Six Nations Championship is over, there will be no more pesky interruptions from Ireland. It's all Leinster, all the way from now until (hopefully) the end of May. Of course the Six Nations ended in disappointment and no doubt both players and fans will be relieved to return to their provinces this weekend.

The effects of the championship are still being felt for Leinster though, not least with the injuries to Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy and Nathan Hines. There are further injuries to Shane Horgan and Kevin McLaughlin coupled with the long-term injuries to Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O'Brien who are out for the season.

All this means that the Leinster squad is being stretched to its' limits. However, the positive side of this is that so far, the squad has met the challenge impressively. A group of veterans, foreign players and young bucks have combined to keep Leinster's eight match unbeaten run going during the Six Nations.

They had to work hard for it the last day out against Glasgow and injuries during the match meant that Leinster finished the night with four academy players on the pitch. However, they dug in and got the result that leaves them four points clear at the top of the table with a game in hand over their three closest rivals. It's a great position to be in but they need to keep the pressure on to secure a top two spot that would give them a home semi-final.

For Connacht, top four dreams are long since gone, but they still have ambitions to overtake Ulster in the table to qualify for the Heineken Cup next season. In any case, Leinster can't afford to underestimate them as with these inter-provincial derbies, form goes out the window. Connacht haven't beaten Leinster in Dublin since 2002 but with their good recent form and Leinster's injury problems they'll be fancying their chances with this one.

In their last five matches they've earned three victories and a draw. This includes the two wins in the Group Stages of the Challenge Cup, which secured them a home quarter-final against Bourgoin. In their last three Magners League games, they had a narrow loss away to the Ospreys, a home draw against Glasgow (that they really should have won) and a convincing win over the Dragons.

Coach Michael Bradley is off at the end of the season to be replaced by current assistant Eric Elwood. There is also the controversial IRFU review process that means they are limited to offering new contracts for next season only. This has caused some nervousness out west, however their future does appear to be secure. It has served to focus minds though and their recent form has been a massive improvement on earlier in the season when they appeared in terminal decline.

They have their own injury problems and are missing key men in Niva Ta'auso, Ray Ofisa and captain John Muldoon. With these missing, it's perhaps surprising that two of their current Irish Internationals Sean Cronin and Ian Keatley have been left on the bench. New Zealander Miah Nikora replaces Keatley while Cronin has to be content with a replacement role as Adrian Flavin keeps the number two jersey. In all there are eight changes to the team that beat the Dragons.

In the backs Brian Tuohy comes in on the wing for his first appearance since October. He makes up a dangerous back three with captain Gavin Duffy and the country's top try-scorer Fionn Carr. In the centre Aidan Wynne replaces Ta'auso and partners the powerful Keith Matthews. Frank Murphy comes in for Conor O'Loughlin at scrum-half to partner Nikora.

There are four more changes in the pack. Mike McComish and Johnny O'Connor come in for Muldoon and Ofisa in the backrow, where number eight George Naoupu has been making a good impression since arriving in December. Bernie Upton comes in for Michael Swift in the second row, alongside Mike McCarthy, who was sent off in the match in Galway last season. In the front row England International Robbie Morris comes in for Jamie Hagan.

It's a strong team, but you can't help feeling it could be stronger. Bradley's policy of "targetting" games isn't popular among a lot of Connacht fans and you kind of get the sense he's at it again. That said, Leinster can't afford to be complacent and they've named a strong team with eight changes from the team that started against Glasgow.

International half backs Eoin Reddan and Jonny Sexton return to replace Paul O'Donohue and Shaun Berne who has recovered from injury to take his place in the centre. Fergus McFadden, who has been in great scoring form lately, has recovered from a head injury to partner Berne. Rob Kearney comes back in at full back, which means Girvan Dempsey moves to the right wing in place of Simon Keogh who is on the bench with Eoin O'Malley. Isa Nacewa stays on the left wing and he'll be looking to continue the form that must have him in the running for Leinster's player of the season.

In the pack John Fogarty returns from a spell out with injury to replace Bernard Jackman at hooker. The props are rotated again and this time Stan Wright and Mike Ross start with CJ van der Linde on the bench. In the second row Leo Cullen returns to captain the side alongside his old mucker Malcolm O'Kelly who's on great form. Shane Jennings returns to play at open-side alongside Stephen Keogh and young Rhys Ruddock.

Ruddock replaces the injured McLaughlin at blind-side for only his second senior start. However he'll be full of confidence after leading the Ireland under-20s to the Six Nations championship and he'll be itching to show he has the physicality to be a real force at this level.

Though Leinster rarely lose to Connacht, they rarely hammer them either and don't be surprised if it's another scrappy one. Connacht always lift their game against Leinster no matter what. The blues should be strong enough to grind out a comfortable enough win though.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Connacht Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Gavin Duffy (C)
Girvan Dempsey 14 Brian Touhy
Fergus McFadden
13 Aidan Wynne
Shaun Berne 12 Keith Matthews
Isa Nacewa 11 Fionn Carr
Jonathan Sexton
10 Miah Nakora
Eoin Reddan
9 Frank Murphy

Stan Wright
1 Brett Wilkinson
John Fogarty
2 Adrian Flavin
Mike Ross
3 Robbie Morris
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Mike McCarthy
Malcolm O'Kelly
5 Bernie Upton
Rhys Ruddock
6 Mike McComish
Shane Jennings
7 Johnny O'Connor
Stephen Keogh
8 George Naoupu

Replacements Bernard Jackman
16 Sean Cronin
CJ van der Linde
17 Jamie Hagan
Devin Toner
18 Michael Swift
Paul Ryan
19
Andrew Browne
Paul O'Donohoe
20 Conor O'Loughlin
Eoin O'Malley
21 Ian Keatley
Simon Keogh
22 Troy Hathan

Not Considered
due to Injury
Gordon D'Arcy
Luke Fitzgerald
Nathan Hines
Shane Horgan
Ian McKinley
Kevin McLaughlin
Sean O'Brien
Brian O'Driscoll
Officials Referee: Jerome Garces (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Simon McDowell (IRFU), Jude Quinn (IRFU)
4th Official: John Montayne (ARLB)
5th Official: Gordon Murray (ARLB)
TMO: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-03-26

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