The new year is almost upon us and while most people are already planning on where they’ll be to sign off on 2017 and ring in the start of 2018, there are many who will be more focused on where they’ll be for the first Pro14 match of the new year! I’ll definitely be one of those people! Connacht and Leinster fans will be packed into the RDS for what has become a very high profile fixture for both teams who have become big rivals in the PRO14 competition.
This fixture is a huge one for both teams each year. For Leinster, it’s a big game in terms of beating their rivals who denied their charge towards Pro12 glory in 2016 (it still hurts!!). For Connacht, they will want to create history by beating Leinster at the RDS for the first time.
Judging by the last three encounters at the RDS between these two teams, it will undoubtedly be a high tempo and bruising encounter for both sides. The scores have been very tight over the last three New Year’s Day clashes and I expect it to be another close finish on the scoreboard this time around.
Connacht has selected an extremely strong team for this game, choosing every big gun available, it’s their strongest team selection available and a clear sign of their intent. They have had a bad season overall in this seasons Pro14 and have taken some time to develop their game plans and attack, this is most likely down to bedding in their new coach Kieran Keane so it’s to be expected. Since the end of November however, the squad has started to hum and they have put together some very entertaining performances. They have been very impressive in Europe in particular, undefeated after 4 rounds of the Challenge Cup. They also destroyed Ulster 44-16 at the Sportsground 7 days ago in the Pro14 with a performance reminiscent of their 2015/16 season form. Their early season issues look to have been resolved and they are now starting to become contenders again in both the Pro14 and Challenge Cup. Have no doubts, they will bring their new found intensity to the RDS in two days time!
Leo Cullen has juggled his team selections quite a lot over the last 2 weeks, 18 changes were made to the squad that defeated Munster at Thomond Park on St. Stephen’s Day. Another 13 changes have been made to the team that will take on Connacht on New Year’s Day, below is the full team selection:
15. Rob Kearney (190)
14. Fergus McFadden (160)
13. Garry Ringrose (42)
12. Noel Reid (91)
11. James Lowe (2)
10. Johnny Sexton (141) CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath (85)
1. Peter Dooley (41)
2. Seán Cronin (141)
3. Andrew Porter (18)
4. Ross Molony (53)
5. Ian Nagle (13)
6. Dan Leavy (46)
7. Josh van der Flier (57)
8. Max Deegan (9)
16. Bryan Byrne (19)
17. Ed Byrne (15)
18. Michael Bent (98)
19. Mick Kearney (27)
20. Scott Fardy (10)
21. Nick McCarthy (15)
22. Cathal Marsh (26)
23. Rory O’Loughlin (32)
As you can see, a lot of changes have been made and although this selection looks reasonably strong, especially from 15-9, I feel that all 23 players will face an incredibly tough challenge against a full strength Connacht side. However, we (especially me) have moaned about this before and then Leinster go out and secure a bonus point win with their B or C teams. However, this game will not be the same in my opinion. As mentioned, Connacht are firing all cylinders lately and will have no fear coming over to Dublin, nor will they need any motivation when taking on the boys in blue!
Our backs selection is very impressive given the number of players omitted from selection. Rob Kearney and Fergus McFadden will bring great experience and will provide a steadiness to the back line. These two players have always performed better when they’re together and I expect their leadership and skill to provide great motivation to the rest of the team. James Lowe will partner these two and he retains his position on the wing. Connacht love to move the ball around and deploy a very expansive style of play so I believe that this will very much suit James Lowe as he has the defensive qualities to stop attackers at full tilt, and also create highly effective counter attacking moves which on many occasions leaves defenders struggling to keep up.
In the centre, we have Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid. These two have developed a good partnership and both carry a great step and overall attacking threat that will keep their opposite numbers (Bundee Aki and Tom Farrell) busy. With the 6 Nations squad announcement to be decided towards the end of January, both Aki and Ringrose will want to impress the onlooking Joe Schmidt enough to secure that Ireland number 13 jersey.
To steady the ship, Cullen has brought in Johnny Sexton to captain the side and Luke McGrath back into the fray after being rested over Christmas. These two have been sublime for Leinster, arguably our best players of the season. Their leadership and game controlling abilities will be absolutely crucial if Leinster are to win this game, it’s the area of both team sheets which sees Leinster having a major advantage over Connacht’s Jack Carty and Kieran Marmion.
I would imagine that Connacht will target Sexton given that he’s such a key catalyst to getting Leinster’s game plan up and running, and of course maintaining it for the entirety of the match. They will be aware that the inexperienced Cathal Marsh will be waiting on the bench if Sexton has to retire early. No offence to Marsh but given the strength of the Connacht team that will take to the field, Leinster will need Sexton to guide them to victory, and only Ross Byrne would be a suitable replacement in what will undoubtedly be a tough game.
Where the game will be won.
Following Connacht’s very impressive style of rugby deployed against Ulster last week and throughout their very successful first 4 rounds of the Challenge Cup, they will come to the RDS with a lot of confidence and a well oiled process able to take down top teams in style. Leinster has a fantastic record at home, especially at home to Connacht, but they will need to work harder than the majority of other home games this season to tame the tribesmen. Connacht have a very strong bench and it will seriously threaten the quality on our bench. The starting 15 for Leinster may be able to keep up with Connacht’s throughout the first half but they will need to keep ahead of Connacht going into the second half. As a result, Leinster will need to start hard and fast like they did against Munster because if they allow Connacht to get their style of attack unleashed early on, it could be a long afternoon for the boys in blue in front of a packed out RDS.
The result of this game has a bit of a head versus heart feeling to it. Connacht look stronger on paper and have the ability to potentially obliterate Leinster for the first time at the RDS. Leinster on the other hand has a sprinkle of heavy weight talent in the starting 15 in particular that are capable of turning the tide, leaving defenders dumbfounded and scoring tries from anywhere on the pitch. I feel that although Leinster’s team selection is very much depleted of first choice and even second choice players, there’s still just about enough in the tank to turn over a brave Connacht side filled with hope of toppling their neighbours ambitions of a great start to 2018. It is Leinster after all, they have superior mental strength and game plans that are tailor made to destroying their opposition, we’ve seen this demonstrated in almost every game this season. It may be a cloudy and maybe rainy day in Dublin on Monday but for each player and supporter in blue, the sun will be shining come the final whistle.
Leinster 28 – Connacht 20