If the Cheetahs thought they might get an easy run out against Leinster during the Six Nations, the South Africans were sadly mistaken.
Coming off defeats to Connacht and Scarlets in the last fortnight, the southern hemisphere side would have been desperate to see a ‘weakened’ Leinster side sent out at the RDS tonight, but instead they face a side with five Ireland internationals in the back line alone, with Scott Fardy, Michael Bent and Rhys Ruddock up front.
On top of that, Andrew Porter and James Tracy lie in wait on the bench, as well as the in-form Noel Reid and Ed Byrne.
Ruddock is the big addition, recovering from a hamstring injury that has curtailed his involvement at Test level, and he joins Max Deegan and Caelan Doris in a backline that will relish the battle against Gerhard Olivier, Abongile Nonkontwana, and Junior Pokomela.
Dave Kearney starts at full back, with Adam Byrne winning his 50th cap on the right wing, with Fergus McFadden on the left.
Conor O’Brien and Rory O’Loughlin team up in midfield, with Jamison Gibson-Park joining Ross Byrne — likely to be called into the Ireland camp after injury to Joey Carbery — wearing No 10. Peter Dooley, Bryan Byrne, and Michael Bent start in the front row, with Ross Molony paired with Fardy, who announced a contract extension during the week, in the second row.
The game is close to a must- win for the visitors if they are to earn a place in the PRO14 play-offs, with Cardiff and Connacht six points ahead of them in Conference A after 16 rounds. Their next game is away to Glasgow on March 23, yet they will likely finish with three wins — with Ospreys, Dragons and Southern Kings visiting Bloemfontein in the final three rounds.
“When we played them down there, that was one of the toughest games I think I played last year,” said Rory O’Loughlin, the Leinster midfielder.
“We got a pretty bad beating off them. Most teams struggle down there. They got into the play-offs last year and went quite well and I think they are close enough to the play-offs again this season. It is tough for them with all the travel, they are away for long periods and especially with a Sunday game going into a Friday game it can’t be easy for their last game of three on the road, it’s tough.”
Leinster already have their play-off spot in the bag, and a victory tonight would guarantee a home semi-final — and a crucial week off before it.
Already 22 points clear of second place with five games to go, it’s fair to say the defending champions have an easier lot than the globetrotting Cheetahs. “Cheetahs are more established as a franchise than the Southern Kings, but they’d a challenge because they lost a lot of their team last season, after making the play-offs in their first season,” said Leo Cullen.
“The challenge there is how to retain the talent, there’s lots going on behind the scenes I don’t know much about, but overall it’s been a positive experience.”
LEINSTER: D Kearney, A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, C O’Brien, F McFadden; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; P Dooley, B Byrne, M Bent; R Molony, S Fardy; R Ruddock, M Deegan, C Doris.
Replacements: J Tracy, E Byrne, A Porter, M Kearney, J Murphy, H O’Sullivan, N Reid, B Daly.
CHEETAHS: L Fouche; W Small-Smith, BJ van Rensburg, D Swanepoel, R Maxwane; T Schoeman, T Meyer; Ox Nche, R Venter, A Coetzee; W Steenkamp, JP du Preez; G Olivier, A Nonkontwana, J Pokomela.
Replacements: J du Toit, C Marais, L de Bruin, S Manjezi, M van der Merwe, H Venter, R Paige, S Venter.
Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU)