Will Connors will embark on his European debut today as a man on a mission, charged by Leo Cullen with shutting down Billy Vunipola and his fellow Saracens big ball-carriers.
Connors is one of two Heineken Champions Cup rookies in the Leinster starting line-up for their pivotal quarter-final clash with the defending champions. Fellow 24-year-old Hugo Keenan has retained his place on the right wing to make his competition bow at Aviva Stadium while lock Ryan Baird, 21, could also earn a European debut off the bench.
Openside flanker Connors is one of four changes to the side which beat Ulster 27-5 in last Saturday’s PRO14 final and head coach Cullen admitted yesterday his decision to replace Josh van der Flier, that game’s man of the match, was a difficult decision but with a specific reason in mind.
Saracens’ ball carriers led by England No.8 Vunipola laid waste to Leinster in last season’s Champions Cup final victory in Newcastle while their Wolfpack defence suffocated Cullen’s big carriers in a 20-10 win, prompting the call-up for Connors to reprise his role as a chop-tackling obstacle that has stifled the impact of Ulster’s Marcell Coetzee and Munster’s CJ Stander in recent weeks.
“It’s such a close call,” Cullen said. “Josh has been outstanding for us, man of the match last week so what do you say to him when he comes in and asks why he’s not involved?
“The reality is we probably had a similar question with Will the week before because Will had been exceptional in some of the games that he played as well. So again, that competition is very, very strong and a very close call and that bit of freshness.
Cullen also had a close call at hooker, choosing to bring back Sean Cronin for less-experienced fellow Ireland international Ronan Kelleher after a series of lineout malfunctions last weekend while as expected, half-backs Luke McGrath and captain Johnny Sexton have been named in the XV after start the PRO14 from the bench.
There will be no comeback for Tadhg Furlong today, however. The tighthead prop is still not deemed ready to return from a back injury that has sidelined him since last month’s restart.
"He's just not quite right yet,” Cullen said of Furlong.