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Connacht Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
The Sportsground, Galway,
Saturday, 23rd October 2010, 18:05

Television: Live - RTE2

From 45,000 people in Wembley Stadium to between 4,000 and 5,000 people in the Sportsground, it's very much back to basics for Leinster this weekend. They've had a better start to their Heineken Cup campaign than they would have dared to dream of, but that now has to be parked until December. Between then and now they have five Magners League fixtures and they'll be looking to improve their position of eighth in the table. The team immediately above them in seventh place is Connacht, two points ahead of Leinster. If the positions stayed the same until the end of the season, Leinster wouldn't qualify for next season's Heineken Cup. Now of course, it's way too early to be panicking but Joe Schmidt will still not want Connacht to increase their lead in the table over Leinster to six points or more, even at this stage. So it's a vital game for Leinster this weekend and they need to get thoughts of Wembley glory out of their heads.

Leinster have lost on their last two visits to the Sportsground. On both occasions they didn't send full strength teams, but that is not to deny Connacht their credit due for their fine wins. It must be said though; Connacht did cheat shamelessly both times. Instead of the freezing wind and rain that Leinster had become accustomed to at the Sportsground, Connacht unveiled beautiful sunshine and warm short-sleeve temperatures. The poor Leinster players were stifled by the heat and dazzled by the sunshine, some still swear there were palm trees planted in the dog track. The good news is that heavy rain is forecast for Saturday in Galway so at least the Leinster players will know where they are!

Those two wins over Leinster proved that Connacht could lift themselves for big provincial rivals but at the same time they were prone to heavy defeats, particularly on the road. Eric Elwood, who took over from Michael Bradley as director of rugby this season, is determined to change that culture and strive to be competitive in all games. So far, the results have been pretty impressive with two wins and a draw from five games. In their three away games so far they beat Glasgow, lost to Cardiff and only lost to a last minute try to Scarlets. At home, they hammered the Dragons and drew with Ulster. Their Amlin Challenge Cup campaign didn't get off to such a good start though when the lost embarrassingly to Italian semi-pro outfit I Cavalieri. They recovered last week to beat Bayonne 16-13 but you get the sense that Elwood isn't too bothered about Europe this term. He's gone on the record that improving their position in the Magners League table is his number one priority this season.

They already seem to be playing with a different attitude to last season. In their last match they went away to Cardiff for a Thursday night match, leaving only four days of recovery after the bruising draw with Ulster. It was a tough task and Cardiff quickly took a decent lead and looked set for a handsome win at half-time. Another fifty-point defeat in Cardiff beckoned yet Connacht came out in the second half and fought like demons. With some better luck and a competent referee they could have nipped a bonus point and by the finish, the 22-6 scoreline somewhat flattered Cardiff. In the end, Connacht took nothing from the match, but they left with their pride intact. The statement was clear, they may lose games but they're not going to be the league's whipping boys anymore.

Connacht always lift themselves for Leinster and it's in no little way due to the bunch of ex-Leinster players in the squad. Ian Keatley, Jamie Hagan and Fionn Carr were all in the Leinster academy and they've all been in terrific form this season. Carr is the leading Irish try scorer in the league but once again the Ireland management has ignored his form as he was left out of the squad for the autumn internationals announced on Tuesday. He's not the finished article yet but he is possibly the most exciting player with ball in hand in Irish rugby right now. He's got pure pace and the ability to pop up from anywhere to score a try. He's very dangerous and he'll have a point to prove tomorrow, especially as he's been selected opposite Shane Horgan, who did make the squad.

Connacht have named a near full strength team. John Muldoon has recovered from the broken arm he sustained on Ireland duty in the summer to captain the team in his first Magners League start of the season. Muldoon has been named in the Ireland squad as a flanker but he'll play at number eight tomorrow with Johnny O'Connor and Ray Ofisa on the flanks. Experienced campaigners Michael Swift and Mike McCarthy are in the second row and Hagan, Sean Cronin and Brett Wilkinson make up a powerful and mobile front row. Cronin is in terrific form at the moment and he'll be looking forward to more international action in the autumn.

Frank Murphy and Keatley are the half-backs and both will be disappointed not to be in the Ireland squad given their solid form this season. Keith Matthews and Niva Ta'auso are a strong and direct centre pairing and Carr makes up the back three with Darragh Fanning and Gavin Duffy. Duffy's consistent form at fullback has seen him named in the Ireland squad ahead of Geordan Murphy and he will relish the chance to go toe to toe with Rob Kearney, his rival for the Ireland 15 jersey.

For Leinster, it'll be a case of refocusing their efforts after the dramatic win over Saracens. It was a terrific result and the final four minutes when they defended so bravely will live long in the memory. They knew that referee Christophe Berdos would penalise them if they competed for the ball in any way (legal or not) so they simply knuckled down and tackled Saracens and rolled away. They went through 32 exhausting phases until Saracens knocked the ball on. It was a supreme example of guts, but also of smarts. In the past Leinster have had French referees murder them at the breakdown, such as Joel Jutge in Edinburgh in 2006. In that case Leinster kept giving Jutge opportunities to penalise them, but last Saturday they were cute enough not to give Berdos any chance to blow up on them. It's a lesson that hopefully they'll take to heart now in terms of discipline.

Jonny Sexton was in superb form last week, kicking seven from seven and throwing in a try for good measure. He'll be hoping to continue that form this week and he'll be partnered by Isaac Boss, who comes in for Eoin Reddan in one of four changes to the team that started against Saracens. These are partly due to injury but also to do with players being rested on the orders of the IRFU. In the only change to the pack, Leo Cullen starts his first game of the season in the second row with Nathan Hines dropping to the bench. In the backline Fergus McFadden and Eoin O'Malley come in at centre in place of Gordon D'Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald. Andrew Conway features in the first team squad for the first time this season after scoring two tries in the 'A' teams win over Newport last Sunday. It's a very strong Leinster side, stronger than probably anticipated which shows how seriously they're taking this match.

One of Michael Cheika's regrets as Leinster coach was that he felt he could never get the team to take the threat of Connacht seriously enough. Speaking after the 27-13 loss to them last April he commented that "it was another game we lost here because we lacked the correct attitude". That attitude was reflected in a horribly half-hearted performance and any repeat of that complacency will see Connacht make it a hat-trick of home wins. However if Leinster can get their attitude right and give Connacht the respect they're due then they should have enough to grind out a tight win.

Match Statistics
  Connacht Rugby
Leinster Rugby
Teams Gavin Duffy
15 Robert Kearney
Darragh Fanning
14 Shane Horgan
Niva Ta'auso
13 Eoin O'Malley
Keith Matthews
12 Fergus McFadden
Fionn Carr
11 Isa Nacewa
Ian Keatley
10 Jonathan Sexton
Frank Murphy
9 Isaac Boss

Brett Wilkinson
1 Cian Healy
Sean Cronin
2 Richardt Strauss
Jamie Hagan
3 Mike Ross
Michael Swift
4 Leo Cullen
Mike McCarthy
5 Devin Toner
Johnny O'Connor
6 Sean O'Brien
Ray Ofisa
7 Shane Jennings
John Muldoon (C)
8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Adrian Flavin
16 Jason Harris-Wright
Barry Fa'amausili
17 Heinke van der Merwe
Ronan Loughney 18 Simon Shawe
Bernie Upton
19 Nathan Hines
Ezra Taylor
20 Diminic Ryan
Cillian Willis
21 Eoin Reddan
Miah Nikora
22 Gordon D'Arcy
Troy Nathan
23 Andrew Conway
Not Considered
due to Injury
Robbie Morris

Stan Wright,
Kevin McLaughlin,
Shaun Berne,
Ed O'Donoghue,
John Fogarty,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Luke Fitzgerald
Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Peter Roche (both IRFU)
TMO: Seamus Flannery (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-10-22