New year — same old Leinster?
Leo Cullen has made 14 changes to the side defeated Munster in Thomond Park last weekend, as the province look for their 14th straight win.
Leinster are already in the knockout stages of Europe — with two games to spare — and remain the only team with a 100% record in the PRO14 after their victory in Limerick.
Since last year’s Champions Cup final loss to Saracens in Newcastle, the province have won 15 games in a row and another win this afternoon, against Connacht in the RDS, would send them into next week’s European clash with Lyon on a high.
Johnny Sexton, out since early December with a knee injury, is “less likely” to feature in the European games, but Cullen insists he’s “not a million miles away” and the Leinster coach yesterday said he’d be hopeful the No. 10 can feature in the 2020 Six Nations.
Ciarán Frawley starts at out-half against Connacht, with Harry Byrne — so impressive against Ulster before Christmas, on the bench.
Will Connors, wearing the No. 7 shirt, is the only player retained from the Munster game, with Cullen offering opportunity all over the park.
James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Jordan Larmour, and Garry Ringrose are among the star players returning to action, while Joe Tomane, Luke McGrath, and Seán Cronin also start.
“Overall the competition is good for the group, I think it’s healthy,” Cullen said. “We know there are periods in the calendar where it squeezes, in the knockout phases particularly, other times of the year we try to manage the group well rather than being flogged into the ground. So it’s a good competitive group.
“Most guys understand what is coming up now, rounds five and six, does he want to finish off this interprovincial series at Christmas strongly which leads into five and six of Europe which leads into the Six Nations?
“Everyone wants to showcase themselves well.
“So they know that this window is getting tighter now. They know this game which leads into Lyon and Treviso the Saturday after that, overall the guys apply themselves very well.
The group has responded very well to the competition and for the most part stayed reasonably fit and healthy which is important.
“It’s a very different team to what we had last week. It’s up to us as coaches to sit back after this game and reflect and make decisions for the next few weeks. The players understand what is coming around quite quickly after the Six Nations.”
Rhys Ruddock captains the side and forms part of a strong backrow with Will Connors and Max Deegan — two players who were called into the Ireland squad meetup with new head coach Andy Farrell recently.
Caelan Doris and Ryan Baird are on the bench tonight, highlighting just what depth of talent Cullen has to play with in the backrow — so is Ruddock excited or daunted?
“Honestly, I’d be more excited for them because I’ve seen how hard they work over a long time,” he said.
“Especially Max, he has been around a long time, but the other two boys, for the last year or so, it was only a matter of time from the performances they’ve been putting together, the way they’ve applied themselves to training and how keen they are to learn.
It didn’t come as much of a shock or a worry, it’s more excitement for them to get the opportunity.
“They’ve been putting in big performances, hopefully, they can do the same today and they’ll be a step closer to being involved down the line.”
Jordan Larmour; Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Joe Tomane, Dave Kearney; Ciarán Frawley, Luke McGrath; Peter Dooley, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan, Rhys Ruddock (c), Will Connors, Max Deegan.
Bryan Byrne, Ed Byrne, Roman Salanoa, Ryan Baird, Caelan Doris, Jamison Gibson-Park, Harry Byrne, Cian Kelleher.
Stephen Fitzgerald, Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, John Porch, Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (c): Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.
Tom McCartney, Paddy McAllister, Conor Kenny, Joe Maksymiw, Sean Masterson, Stephen Kerins, David Horwitz, Tiernan O’Halloran