Leinster make sweeping changes

Pro12 title holders Leinster have made seven changes to their starting line-up as they aim to begin the traditional Christmas interprovincial period with victory over Connacht at the RDS tonight.

Leinster make sweeping changes

However, while a number of individuals return to the fold following Leinster’s Champions Cup success over Harlequins, lock Aly Muldowney is the only Connacht player to retain his place in the wake of the last Saturday’s Challenge Cup encounter away to Bayonne.

Mils Muliaina returns to face his old New Zealand U19 team-mate Isaac Boss and, for the second time this season, loan signing Quinn Roux will feature against his parent club.

With European qualification at stake, Connacht have performed with ferocious intensity in the current campaign. After suffering a narrow loss to the rejuvenated westerners at the Sportsgrounds in September, Leinster coach Matt O’Connor is eager for an improved performance from his team on this occasion.

“We were pretty disappointed with that,” he said.

“I thought in the first half we were very, very good. We weren’t nearly as accurate as we needed to be in the second half into the wind and up the hill.

“We need to be better tomorrow night. They’re going to be very, very motivated. A lot at stake, and we’re going to have to be very accurate.”

Like many within the Leinster set-up, flanker Kevin McLaughlin’s season has been curtailed by injury. He completes an experienced back row alongside Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip, and he agrees that this is the most impressive Connacht team he has encountered.

“It is, definitely,” he said. “I was just looking through their team there and there is no weakness. They have experience there with [Mils] Muliaina at the back and [Robbie] Henshaw being an international now. [Kieran] Marmion plays about 40 games a season for them.

“From a physical point of view, they really come at you and they try to beat you up. That’s how they play. If we don’t front up, we will be in serious trouble.”

Dave Kearney’s selection on the left wing brings Darragh Fanning’s uninterrupted run in the team to an end. Kearney joins brother Rob and Zane Kirchner in a back three that will need to be at their best to limit the influence of their Connacht counterparts.

An injury to Ian Madigan means Luke Fitzgerald and Noel Reid start together in the centre for the first time, with Gordon D’Arcy held in reserve. Jimmy Gopperth and Boss form a half-back alliance for the second game in succession, but there is an entirely new front row of Michael Bent, Aaron Dundon and Tadhg Furlong for this clash of fifth against sixth.

Sean Cronin and Jack McGrath both drop to a replacements bench that features Luke McGrath, Cathal Marsh and potential debutant Maks Van Dyk, who all played their part in Leinster A’s recent British & Irish Cup win over Plymouth Albion.

Off the field, Leinster’s Mike Ross has signed a new one-year contract to remain with the province until at least June 2016.

The prop has made 114 appearances since joining from Harlequins in 2009 and will be 36 upon the expiry of the IRFU-funded contract.

Ross, who has 44 caps for Ireland, was delighted to renew. “There is a huge amount of talent in the squad and it is an exciting time to be involved with both Leinster and Ireland.

“The next 12 months will be incredibly busy and challenging but also has the potential to be very rewarding too.”

Meanwhile, Eric Elwood has returned to Connacht to serve as domestic rugby manager.

Elwood, who played out-half for Connacht and Ireland, held the position of head coach from 2010 to 2013. He starts his new role next month, and said: “It will certainly be different for me, but that is what excites me about it. I have always understood the importance of the domestic game in the future of Connacht Rugby.”

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