Still top of the Guinness Pro12 table with five fixtures remaining, Connacht have an undeniably poor record over their fellow provinces, but no Pro12 fixture has had the same importance as this evening’s top of the table clash at a capacity Sportsground.
“There’s certainly a huge buzz around this game and we’re all really looking forward to it — it doesn’t get much better than playing in front of a sold-out Sportsground,” says Connacht coach Pat Lam. “But we have worked hard to be here and it’s important to understand how we got there.”
Only one of Connacht’s international quintet are unavailable — Ultan Dillane having failed to recover from “niggles” following his first exploits on the Six Nations stage, while Finlay Bealham and Robbie Henshaw are named on the bench.
With regular centre and kicker Craig Ronaldson ruled out, another youngster, Peter Robb, will partner Bundee Aki. The only other change in the backs is the inclusion of Connacht’s fastest man, wing Niyi Adeolokun, who replaces Danie Poolman.
AJ MacGinty takes over the kicking duties and continues his half-back pairing with Kieran Marmion while Ireland prop Nathan White is named in an unchanged pack.
Lam says Connacht need to treat this evening’s game as just another challenge in their bid for Champions Cup rugby.
“Yes, it is one v two, Connacht v Leinster, the Sportsground, sold-out, big crowd, broadcast live on Sky, Nigel Owens as ref, “ he says, “but that is all peripheral.
“The first thing is we want the points. There still nine teams pushing for six spots, and everyone is fighting, and the most important thing is how we play as a team and put pressure on Leinster.”
“Staying focused and channelling that excitement and energy into our structures and systems will give us the best chance of getting the points on offer. It’s going to take a massive collective effort from us to come out on top against a team that has a history of winning at this stage of the season.”
Leinster, just a point behind Connacht, have some 14 Ireland internationals in their squad. Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Dominic Ryan, Josh van der Flier, and Rhys Ruddock are all starting, in addition to the fit-again Luke Fitzgerald. Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip, and Eoin Reddan are all named on the bench.
Last year’s fixture at the Sportsground finished 10-9 in favour of Connacht — they would be more than happy to record a similar victory this evening.
T O’Halloran; N Adeolokun, B Aki, P Robb, M Healy; AJ MacGinty, K Marmion; D Buckley, T McCartney, N White; Q Roux, A Muldowney; S O’Brien, J Heenan, J Muldoon (C).
D Heffernan, R Loughney, F Bealham, A Browne, E McKeon C Blade, S O’Leary, R Henshaw.
I Nacewa; F McFadden, G Ringrose, B Te’o L Fitzgerald; I Madigan, L McGrath; C Healy, R Strauss, T Furlong; R Molony, H Triggs; D Ryan, J van der Flier, R Ruddock.
S Cronin, J McGrath, M Ross, D Toner, J Heaslip, E Reddan, N Reid, Z Kirchner.