With a small sense of Groundhog day about it, Leinster are set to travel over to Galway to take on Connacht just two weeks after their last meeting at the Sportsground where Leinster came away with a 8-45 victory. This time however, both teams will tog out on the same ground but this time to compete for a quarter final spot in the Champions Cup; KO 7pm Friday 8th April. Don’t you just love this stage of the season? Yet another chance to see Leinster achieve ultimate success in Europe and give their supporters another great day out in celebration!
This is Connacht’s first appearance in the knock out (Round 16) stages of the Champions Cup and also their first meeting with Leinster in the same competition. The format of years past has changed in that Leinster and Connacht must face off in a double fixture (home & away) this week and next week to determine who moves on to the quarter final stages. It’s a very intriguing prospect to see these two teams having to battle it out 3 times in 3 weeks; I’m sure this will help preparations for both sides as they will be accustomed to each other’s threats quite well especially come the final showdown at the Aviva next week.
Connacht’s form has been very up and down throughout this season, their ability to play at a high tempo for 80 minutes has not been impressive and some discipline issues have hampered their momentum. Personally, I think they are missing some leadership as when things start to get away from them on the scoreboard, they tend to panic slightly and can’t find their way back. We all know they have the squad to achieve great results in both the URC and the Champions Cup but their lack of consistency in their performances have left them coming out on the wrong side of results far too many times. However, there’s always a feeling that Connacht will turn things around and start playing like they did at the beginning of this season; free flowing and exciting attacking rugby. Now that they get another chance to seek revenge against their very recent loss to Leinster and also the added motivation that comes with being in the knock-out stages of the Champions Cup, I have a feeling that we’ll see a much stronger showing from their squad tomorrow evening. After all, we Leinster supporters are more than familiar with how Connacht clearly target the Leinster interpro fixtures to great effect over the years. Leinster, be prepared!!
And with all that being said, you can be sure, Leinster will be very prepared for this one. It’s Champions Cup time and another great opportunity for Leinster to drive on from recent disappointments and ascend to the top of the heap again in Europe by claiming a much desired fifth star. Of course, a lot of games need to be played in order to get to that stage but Leinster’s next stage of preparation starts here and Connacht will be the receivers of their hunger, believe and incessant drive for European glory.
Below is the team selection from Cullen & Co.:
15. Hugo Keenan
14. Jimmy O’Brien
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton CAPTAIN
9. Luke McGrath
1. Cian Healy
2. Dan Sheehan
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Ross Molony
5. Josh Murphy
6. Caelan Doris
7. Josh van der Flier
8. Jack Conan
16. James Tracy (140)
17. Ed Byrne (81)
18. Michael Ala’alatoa (17)
19. Devin Toner (277)
20. Max Deegan (81)
21. Jamison Gibson-Park (109)
22. Ross Byrne (121)
23. Ciarán Frawley (48)
There’s a whole pile of talent in this selection, 12 starting and another 7 on the bench. It’s an extremely strong selection despite missing some key players like Andres Porter, Jordan Larmour, James Ryan, Ronan Kelleher and Ryan Baird. The strength in depth is immense and I’m happy to see Josh Murphy and Ross Molony getting an opportunity to play in such a huge game!
It’s also great to see Sexton back on the Leinster team sheet, his form has been immense this season in all competitions, his involvement will be very much welcomed by the squad and supporters, and undoubtedly feared by our opponents. When Sexton plays, the Leinster performance just grow in intensity and ferocity.
Our front row and back three in particular look very powerful and will be an area of dominance from the boys in blue if deployed effectively. Equally, our 6-8 partnership (Doris, Van de Flier, Conan) look highly potent and going on recent form will cause problems for the Connacht pack throughout this game.
All in all, it’s a squad stacked with highly capable, resilient and incredibly experienced players who will be chomping at the bit to get stuck back into the Champions Cup.
Meanwhile, Connacht has selected their strongest team available. Bundee and Hansen will return who have been sorely missed in recent weeks. Hansen’s form has been outstanding out west and for Ireland this year and I’m sure Leinster will be keeping a close eye on him throughout. If Connacht are fully switched on for this one, they are more than capable of causing all sorts of problems for Leinster with this selection.
Where the game will be won
Given there are two games to be played in this Round 16 Playoffs, both teams will throw the kitchen sink at this first game given that the aggregate score could be crucial to deciding who moves onward in the competition next week. As a result, there will be less of the holding back and easing the way into the game, and instead I expect both sides to go hunting for tries from the off. I won’t be shocked if there’s a very early try to kick off what should be a very aggressive battle in Galway.
Connacht will know only too well that Leinster are coming with a stronger squad with more experience and a varied style of playing which most teams in Europe find too difficult to deal with. They’ll also look at their last two results (RDS 45-20 / Sportsground 8-45) over the last 4 months and see how clinical this Leinster team is.
Ok ok, it’s clear that Leinster are favourites and based on previous outings and current form from both sides, on paper, Leinster should win this one comfortably. If they have any sights on winning silverware, they should! However, I think there will be twists and turns and not everything will fall on Leinster’s lap. Connacht have an incredible (and very annoying) ability to step up and turn on the aft burners when Leinster come to town, such is their desire to beat their provincial rivals, and I think we might see some of that level of performance from Andy Friend’s side tomorrow.
How Connacht could potential cause an upset (or from the perspective of a Connacht support; “win”), is by stopping Leinster at source. Leinster put a lot of pressure and build large amounts of momentum from their ability to gain fast ball from their rucks. I think Connacht will target the ruck to slow down their attack. The Leinster lineout is another area where I think we’ll see Connacht do their utmost to thwart and win back some possession. If they are successful, they’ll be nullifying around 50% of Leinster’s most common sources of scores. I don’t expect Connacht to try and take Leinster on up front, so I think they’ll opt for a kicking game; both little chips over the top (classic Carty move against us) and long range kicks to keep us penned in our own half.
On the Leinster side, I think they’ll will mix things up a bit to test Connacht for any weaknesses from the off. Our 1-8 selection tells you that Cullen wants them to barge their way up field and win the big collisions. The backs selection is sublime and filled with playmakers ready to capitalise either on individual errors from Connacht, but also hunt down gaps in defense. Leinster feed off their ability to move fast around the field and dictate the tempo of the game, so they’ll need to keep strong discipline if Connacht come looking to slow everything down.
Ultimately, if Connacht aren’t fully fired up and ready to take the game to Leinster, it’ll be a very long evening for them. Leinster need to keep their tempo high enough to make Connacht second guess and eventually make mistakes. So cool heads, a strong game plan, and a clear understanding of each side’s strengths/weaknesses will be key.
Connacht undoubtedly will really go for it tomorrow, especially with it being their first time in the knockout stages of this competition. They will absolutely look to slow down ruck ball and maybe even start one or two scuffles off the ball in an attempt to rattle Leinster. They will keep up with Leinster for a large portion of the first half, but like with the last couple of head to heads, the second half will prove the difference between the two teams again. Connacht will need to significantly outscore Leinster in the first half in order to have a chance, however, I feel that Leinster will get into their stride in this match faster than Connacht will. I just feel that there will be more hunger, determination and most importantly, cohesion, within this Leinster squad to control the outcome in their favour. The media will spin a story about how all bets being off in knock out stages and Connacht will come out guns blazing to regain their pride but in reality, Leinster will be far to hard for them to live with for 80 minutes.
I expect a big win and a bonus point for Leinster, there’s just far too much firepower and experience in this selection to see this going any other way. Cheeky prediction; Lowe to score first try within first 10 minutes.
Connacht 15 – Leinster 38
Match day result: Connacht 21 – Leinster 26