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Connacht Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
The Sportsground, Galway,
Sunday, 1st January 2012, 17:00

Television: Live - TG4

Leinster start the new year with a trip to Galway to face strugglers Connacht. The differences in the form guide between the two teams couldn't be starker though. Leinster are hoping to keep their unbeaten run going for a 13th match in a row stretching back to the home defeat against Glasgow in September. Poor Connacht on the other hand are desperately looking for a win to break an 11-match losing streak. They haven't won since beating the Dragons back in September and it's cast a shadow over a season that began with such excitement.

On the back of Leinster's win in Cardiff last season, Connacht were allowed to enter the Heineken Cup for the first time in their history. There was huge anticipation about taking on Harlequins, Toulouse and Gloucester and they sold record numbers of season tickets on the back of it. They also redeveloped part of the Sportsground so that the punters on the far terrace would finally get some shelter from the elements. In their first day out away to Harlequins, they put in an excellent performance that nearly caught the English League leaders on the hop. They were desperately unlucky not to take at least a bonus point from the game.

However passion and romance will only get you so far and this is the tough, brutal world of the Heineken Cup. Tipped off by their performance in the first round, Toulouse coach Guy Noves named a very strong squad for the trip to Galway the week after. Connacht went into the match with great hopes, but were crushed 36-10 in a display of relentless, cruel professionalism by the French aristocrats. This seemed to knock the stuffing out of Connacht and in their double-header against Gloucester, they ran them close but agonisingly lost both games by only four points.

The narrowness of those two defeats has unfortunately been a common theme for Connacht in their losing streak. In seven of the eleven defeats, they've lost by ten points or less. They always seem to just lack that bit of cutting edge or cuteness to get that late score or just hold out to seal a game off. The run of defeats have inevitably sapped morale and it was noticeable in their game against Munster on St. Stephen's Day that the result was a forgone conclusion after only twenty minutes.

That said, Connacht would love nothing more than to beat Leinster at home to restart their season. When they see the Leinster team, they will fancy their chances because the Leinster squad has been pretty well-stretched over the last few weeks. Connacht themselves have made five changes from the team that started against Munster. Three of these are in the backline where Paul O'Donohoe comes in for Frank Murphy at scrumhalf, Brian Tuohy replaces Fetu'u Vainikolo on the wing and Kyle Tonetti takes over from the injured Dave McSharry at inside centre.

There are two more changes in the pack where experienced hooker Adrian Flavin replaces Ethienne Reynecke. The last change sees former Leinster under-age player Mick Kearney get his first competitive start for Connacht. Formerly a second-row, the former Ireland Under-20 cap is selected at blind-side flank is place of the injured Dave Gannon.

Of course Kearney isn't the only player on the team with links to Leinster as O'Donohoe and Tonetti also once wore the blue. This will give an extra spice to the occasion and with homegrown talent like Eoin Griffin and Tiernan O'Halloran playing so well at the moment, there's a nice mix in the backline. Gavin Duffy captains the team from full-back and he'll be looking for his experienced men in the pack like George Naoupu, Mike McCarthy, Johnny O'Connor and John Muldoon to really get stuck into the relatively inexperienced Leinster eight.

Once again Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has had to shuffle his squad and there are at least ten changes from the team that started against Ulster. In the backline only David Kearney and Ian Madigan retain the same jerseys from the last day. Isa Nacewa is back at full-back and Andrew Conway gets his first start of the season on the left wing. Brendan Macken makes only his second start of the season and he partners Eoin O'Malley in the centre. Isaac Boss comes in for Eoin Reddan at scrum-half and with the conditions forecast, the game could be made for his attritional style of play.

There's a completely new front row in Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss and Jamie Hagan. McGrath, who's a huge man, makes his first start of the season and he'll want to show Schmidt he can be trusted in the scrums to get more game-time. Hagan struggled somewhat in the scrum when he faced his old team back in September so he'll be looking to put down a marker against the experienced Brett Wilkinson. Leo Cullen is back in the second row to captain the team and he partners Connacht native Damian Browne, who retains his spot from the last day. Rhys Ruddock comes in at blind-side flanker and Kevin McLaughlin and Shane Jennings are currently bracketed in the number seven jersey. Leo Auva'a continues at number eight and he'll be hoping to continue his good form, which has seen him score four tries this season.

This could actually turn into quite a tricky game for Leinster. With two young props on show Connacht could well target their scrum and with Johnny O'Connor around, they will be a menace at the breakdown as usual. With heavy rain and strong winds forecast, this will most probably turn into a dog-fight that could go either way. With a high number of young players in the side Leinster will really rely heavily on experienced pro's like Leo Cullen, Isa Nacewa and Isaac Boss to provide leadership. Joe Schmidt will be desperate to win to maintain Leinster's lead at the top of the table, however on this occasion Connacht's need to win may just be the deciding factor.

Team Lineups

Connacht Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Gavin Duffy (C)
15 Isa Nacewa
Brian Tuohy 14 David Kearney
Eoin Griffin 13 Eoin O'Malley
Kyle Tonetti 12 Brendan Macken
Tiernan O'Halloran 11 Andrew Conway
Niall O'Connor 10 Ian Madigan
Paul O'Donohoe 9 Isaac Boss

Brett Wilkinson 1 Jack McGrath
Adrian Flavin 2 Richardt Strauss
Ronan Loughney 3 Jamie Hagan
George Naoupu 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Mike McCarthy 5 Damian Browne
Mick Kearney 6 Rhys Ruddock
Johnny O'Connor 7 Kevin McLaughlin / Shane Jennings
John Muldoon 8 Leo Auva'a

Replacements Ethienne Reynecke 16 Sean Cronin
Denis Buckley 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Dylan Rogers 18 Nathan White
Eoin McKeon 19 Devin Toner
TJ Anderson 20 Shane Jennings / Jordi Murphy
Frank Murphy 21 John Cooney
Matthew Jarvis 22 Noel Reid / Fionn Carr
Henry Fa'afili 23 Luke Fitzgerald

Not Considered
due to Injury
Dave Nolan,
Andrew Browne,
James Loxton,
Mark McCrea,
David Gannon,
Dave McSharry,
Michael Swift,
Rodney Ah You,
Ray Ofisa

Mat Berquist,
Shane Horgan,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Dominic Ryan,
Simon Shawe,
Eamonn Sheridan,
Steven Sykes
Officials

Referee: John Lacey (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Michael Black (both IRFU),
TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU)



by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-12-30

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