Leinster to batten down hatches as western gale heading east

The usual New Year cheer should be all the more pronounced in Ballsbridge today, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Jonathan Sexton returns to the Leinster lineup today. Picture: Brendnan Moran/Sportsfile

With Leinster impressing in the win over Munster in Limerick on St Stephen’s Day and Connacht trouncing Ulster in Galway four days earlier, both sides will be looking to kick off the latest calendar year as they ended the last one.

A win for Connacht here would be a huge statement of intent.

The western province has claimed a win in Dublin just three times since their first foray back in 1932 and, though they have been a consistently troublesome opponent in recent times, the capital hasn’t fallen to them.

Three-point defeats in 2010 and 2013 have been the sum of their best shots of late and the prospects of bettering those scorelines seem slim given the hosts’ form and the fact they haven’t lost a league game on their home patch since February of 2015.

The manner of Connacht’s 44-16 win against Ulster was frankly astonishing. Not just because of the scoreline and the manner in which it was posted but for the fact that their previous PRO14 effort had amounted to a 14-point defeat away to Zebre.

Kieran Keane would no doubt argue that they have won their three games since – one of them in France - but the watery attitudes in England and France to the Challenge Cup, and Ulster’s issues, are significant asterisks to be attaching to that run.

“The biggest thing for Connacht is that they were hit with a lot of injuries and it’s taken them a while to hit their stride,” said Girvan Dempsey, Leinster’s backs coach. “Now we can see that they’ve got guys back. Niyi Adeolukun is back, Matt Healy’s back in the fold and the back three looks extremely dangerous.

“But you saw over the last few weeks that they’re starting to get a lot more settled. There’s more clarity in how they want to play, so there’s not a massive change. They’ve adapted a few changes, they’re more of a kicking threat than they would have been a couple of years ago.”

It was no surprise then that Keane named a side yesterday showing just three changes from the one that routed Ulster with the hooker Tom McCartney, lock James Cannon and wing Cian Kelleher the draftees in question.

Leinster’s reaction to the win in Thomond has been very different and emphasises again just how deep the talent pool is. Only two starters have been retained: James Lowe breaks ground at the RDS for the first time and Dan Leavy goes again in the back row.

Both were outstanding in Limerick while the return of Jonathan Sexton from concussion is the most notable point of interest among the new faces in a side which is again lighter than usual on top-tier Ireland internationals.

As was the case last week, Leo Cullen will still be able to boast a XV with nine men who have worn the green jersey at senior level but there is a callowness to the squad all the way down to the bench.

The front five is particularly light on experience and, while further rotation will be seen next week against Ulster, it will be interesting to see how many of the younger generation are retained once attention returns to European fare.

“It’s a great place to be,” said Dempsey. “It’s such a tough selection decision and it’s a luxury to have but the reality is … we have four big games, two derby games and two European games, and I know that ultimately you don’t always have everyone on deck.

“The reality is that in big games that you have that balance. You have to have a balance between youth and experience but we’ve shown over the last couple of years as a coaching group that we have backed youth in a lot of scenarios and it’s served us well.”

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