Sean Cronin opted for a handful of Connacht’s memorable Challenge Cup wins when asked this week for the highlights of his three-year spell in Galway, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that loyalty diverted him from more localised highs.
A Leinster player since 2011, Cronin faced his current employers three times in front of a packed house at the Sportsground and finished on the winning side twice. So he knows more than most how the locals feel when their cousins from Dublin arrive down the M6.
“They seem to enjoy it,” he said with understatement, “enjoy when Leinster roll into town.”
Connacht have come out the better of the current league leaders and perennial front-runners five times in the last seven meetings out west. That run stretches back to October of 2008. They’ve edged Leinster by a point on three of those occasions and with something to spare the other two.
They’ve beaten them in open games and in arm wrestles, under blue skies, under the stars and amidst atrociously wet conditions. Michael Cheika absorbed defeat there. So has every one of his successors, from Joe Schmidt through to Matt O’Connor and Leo Cullen.
Just to put all that into further context: Leinster have won just over 51% of their PRO12 away games in the last eight years but that percentage dips to 42% in Galway. They have beaten Munster in Thomond Park more often (four times) in the last eight campaigns than they have Connacht at the greyhound track.
“It is just a tough place to go,” said Dave Kearney earlier this week.
“Connacht and the supporters, in particular whenever we come, they love it. We haven’t won there since January 2014. It is always one of the toughest spots away in the PRO12. We know how tough it’s going to be. Hopefully, we can change that, although they are scrapping for the top six as well.”
Leinster’s job looked all the more difficult yesterday with the unveiling of their 23.
Of the squad that did for Wasps in the European quarter-final at the start of the month, only two — Adam Byrne and Luke McGrath — start today while another three of those who featured off the bench that day will appear with them here. Dave Kearney, injured for that Aviva tie, hasn’t been selected either.
It’s the polar opposite approach to Munster who, ahead of their Champions Cup tie with Saracens, have opted for much more front-line strength, and at the same time one very much in keeping with the policy of the four provinces to mix and match their resources when away from home in these local derbies.
What it means is that some of Leinster’s key men — Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’Brien and Garry Ringrose — will approach next week’s date with Clermont Auvergne having featured just once for the club, against Wasps, since their return from the Six Nations with Ireland.
Most of those others expected to take part in Lyon will do so on the back of a two-week break since the narrow defeat of Ospreys. Those tasked with holding the fort in their absence this afternoon will look to do it against a Connacht side bidding to hold on to its Champions Cup reservation for next season.
Captain John Muldoon will make his 300th appearance for the western province in a team that shows just four changes — Jack Carty, Craig Ronaldson, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham come in — from the side that edged a three-point game with Edinburgh at Myreside last time out.
The reigning league champions endured an awful start to the season by losing to both Glasgow and Ospreys in their own backyard in rounds one and two but Munster are the only one of the nine challengers to leave the city since then with a win in either PRO12 or Champions Cup..
“You look at Connacht’s home games this year so far and they are really difficult games to play,” said Leinster coach John Fogarty who played for both clubs.
“Opposition teams really struggle and, all the way through Champions Cup, Connacht are an incredibly difficult team to play against when you have the ball.
“Then when they have the ball they are a deadly team. They can stretch you in defence, they use the kicking game quite well this year in attack so we are expecting a lot of intensity. Making sure when we have the ball that we can take them through phases.
“We were a little bit loose with the ball in hand when we went to ground against Ospreys and we know that if we are in any way loose with the ball against Connacht they will take it off us. Denis Buckley does a great job, the ball he turns over for a loosehead is unbelievable.”
Knowing what to expect in Galway is one thing, countering it can be another.
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, C Ronaldson, D Poolman; J Carty, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, F Bealham, Q Roux, A Browne; E McKeon, J Heenan, J Muldoon.
S Delahunt, JP Cooney, D Robertson-McCoy, S O’Brien, N Dawai, C Blade, S Crosbie, E Griffin.
Z Kirchner; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath; C Healy, J Tracy, M Ross; R Molony, H Triggs; D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock.
S Cronin, P Dooley, M Bent, I Nagle, P Timmins, N McCarthy, T Daly, B Daly.
I Davies (WRU).
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