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Leinster Rugby vs Connacht Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Saturday, 8th October, 2011, 17:00

Television: Live: TG4

By the time this match kicks off, we will already know the score of the Ireland - Wales quarter-final at the World Cup. No doubt it will affect the mood of the crowd at the RDS but good or bad both teams will have to put it out of their minds because they've serious business to attend to. With a three-week break in the league coming up for the final stages of the World Cup, this game will largely define the success or failure of the six-week 'mini-season' we've seen to date.

With four home fixtures in their first six games, Leinster coach Joe Schmidt would have set himself a minimum target of four wins. However, a shed-load of injuries arrived and Leinster suffered a shock home defeat to Glasgow. They made up for that defeat by grinding out a scrappy win in Llanelli and last week they overcame a poor first half to come back to beat a spirited Aironi team. Again, the performance wasn't great but Schmidt would have been pleased with the second half, especially the way the lads kept going to earn a bonus point in the last minute.

That bonus point, coupled with a few other results, propelled Leinster up to third in the table, just ahead of Connacht on points difference. Another win on Saturday will solidify Leinster's place in the top three and close the gap on at least one of the leaders as first-placed Ospreys play second-placed Munster straight afterwards. It would also ensure a feel-good factor in the extended squad that they kept things ticking over in trying circumstances and the internationals can return to a team in a good position in the table.

However much as Leinster have motivation to win, you could argue Connacht's need is even greater. As the squad least affected by the World Cup in the league, they would have hoped to take advantage of the fact by racking up a lot of points. They haven't done badly, winning three of their first five games against Treviso, Scarlets and the Dragons and earning losing bonus points in their two away defeats to Edinburgh and the Ospreys. However, their coach Eric Elwood would probably also have hoped for a minimum of four wins from the first six games (Edinburgh was certainly winnable) and right from the start of the season he would have been targeting the Leinster match in the RDS.

In fairness, when it comes to inter-provincial match-ups Connacht rarely need any extra motivation, especially against Leinster. There's a perception out there that there will be extra needle this time due to that fact that Leinster supposedly "poached" three of Connacht's best players Fionn Carr, Jamie Hagan and Sean Cronin at the end of last season. Connacht would have more grounds for outrage though if Hagan and Carr hadn't come from the Leinster academy in the first place, as did Ian Keatley who transferred to Munster at the end of last season. It's not like Leinster have been signing up home-grown Connacht players. Besides, Connacht have reason to be grateful to Leinster as they're only playing in the Heineken Cup this season because of Leinster's win last May.

Having Heineken Cup matches against Toulouse, Harlequins and Gloucester has made it a lot easier to sell season tickets and their sales have increased by nearly 700%. They've redeveloped the Sportsground to have a roof on the terrace and early season crowds are already encouraging. They got 3,706 people through the gate for the Dragons match two weeks ago, not a huge figure in of itself but nearly triple the 1,371 that attended the same fixture only a year ago. As Leinster fans know, consistent big attendances don't happen over night and building a loyal fanbase of season-ticket holders is vital.

There's further good news for Connacht in how well they're doing at under-age level. They had a bigger representation than Munster at the Junior World Cup in the summer and their under-20 team won the Inter-provincial championship last month for the first time in 10 years. It all hints at a brighter future down the line when perhaps they won't need to take in players from Leinster or Munster at all.

Though Connacht only had one player at the World Cup, Tongan winger Fetu'u Vainikolo, they have been hit pretty hard by injuries. So Eric Elwood has named a team that shows three changes from the Ospreys match. Gavin Duffy has recovered from a knock to captain the team from full back and he'll hope to maintain his fine recent form. Tiernan O'Halloran has succumbed to his injury though so former Ulster player Mark McCrea replaces him on the wing with Brian Tuohy switching over to the left. In the centre Samoan summer signing Henry Fa'afili partners young Eoin Griffin. Another former Ulster player Niall O'Connor is at half-back with Frank Murphy.

Elwood has made two changes to the pack. Hooker Adrian Flavin rotates in for South African Ethienne Reynecke who drops to the bench. Flavin forms a powerful front row with Brett Wilkinson and Dylan Rogers. There's the redoubtable pair of Michael Swift and recently capped Ireland international Mike McCarthy in the second row, a partnership that seems to have been there for decades at this stage, but still a hugely effective unit. The last change is in the back row where Ray Ofisa comes in for TJ Anderson at number eight, with John Muldoon shifting to blindside flanker. There's three former Leinster players on the bench in Dave Gannon, Paul O'Donohoe and Dave McSharry so all three will be keen to get on the pitch.

Leinster have had better news on the injury front with the return of Kevin McLaughlin, Dominic Ryan and Nathan White. Ryan and White are named on the bench while McLaughlin comes in at blindside flanker in place of Ciaran Ruddock. The only other change to the team that started last week is the return to the out-half position of Ian Madigan, who was so impressive when he came on last week.

Connacht will be well up for this match and will look to target Leinster in the scrum and especially at the breakdown, where they've essentially named two open-sides in Ofisa and Johnny O'Connor to Leinster's none. The contact zone will be a battleground and it will need a strong referee to keep control of it. Sadly the gormless Peter Fitzgibbon has been appointed to the game so prepare for a free-for-all.

It will be tough for Leinster and they'll need Isa Nacewa to be back to his best with the place-kicking. Once again it will be a test of character but hopefully Leinster will have enough to earn a win that will leave the whole the squad in a positive mood for their well deserved two weeks off.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Connacht Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Gavin Duffy (C)
Fionn Carr
14 Mark McCrea
Eoin O'Malley 13 Eoin Griffin
Luke Fitzgerald
12 Henry Fa'afili
David Kearney 11 Brian Tuohy
Ian Madigan 10 Niall O'Connor
Cillian Willis
9 Frank Murphy

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Brett Wilkinson
Richardt Strauss
2 Adrian Flavin
Jamie Hagan
3 Dylan Rogers
Steven Sykes 4 Michael Swift
Devin Toner 5 Mike McCarthy
Kevin McLaughlin 6 John Muldoon
Rhys Ruddock (C) 7 Johnny O'Connor
Leo Auva'a 8 Ray Ofisa

Replacements Aaron Dundon
16 Ethienne Reynecke
Jack McGrath 17 Ronan Loughney
Nathan White
18 Rodney Ah You
Damian Browne
19 Dave Gannon
Dominic Ryan
20 TJ Anderson
John Cooney 21 Paul O'Donohoe
Brendan Macken 22 Matthew Jarvis
Darren Hudson 23 Dave McSharry

Not Considered
due to Injury
Mat Berquist,
Eamonn Sheridan,
Shane Horgan,
Simon Shawe,
Andrew Conway,
Tom Sexton,
Ben Marshall

George Naoupu,
Keith Matthews,
Dave Nolan,
Miah Nikora,
Andrew Browne,
Eoghan Grace,
James Loxton
Officials Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey, Mark Patton (both IRFU)
4th Official: Brian Montayne (Leinster Rugby Referees)
5th Official: Danny Wallace (Leinster Rugby Referees)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-10-07

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