Matt O’Connor bids to raise lowly Leinster spirits

“Business as usual” was the message yesterday as Matt O’Connor and Jamie Heaslip discussed Leinster’s Guinness PRO12 meeting with Benetton Treviso tonight, but the reality is that no-one can recall when the balance sheet looked so grim.

O’Connor’s side face the Italians at the RDS and then Edinburgh in Scotland next week with play-off and title forecasts long since scrapped and the focus instead on ensuring they play Champions Cup rather than Challenge Cup rugby next season.

Talk about falling stock.

The talk yesterday, however, was that of normalcy. Of routine. Focus, preparation, injuries. The basic building blocks of game week remain constant, they insisted, amid a campaign run-in that is painfully new and unfamiliar.

Five points tonight and at least one more in Edinburgh must be banked to avoid further ignominy and a possible two-match Champions Cup play-off that, it has been confirmed, would see them face Gloucester in a win-or-bust in Kingsholm before a Top 14 side to boot.

“It doesn’t change anything,” said O’Connor who delivered a league title 12 months ago. “We’ve got to make sure we win (tonight) and make sure we win in Edinburgh and if we do that then our destiny is firmly in our own hands.”

O’Connor was again asked why Leinster have failed to match their own exalted standards in the league this season and replied by pointing to three factors: underperformance, the advent of meritocracy in deciding European places and injuries.

It has proven to be a fatal concoction. The latest casualties include Luke Fitzgerald who is set for three months of rehab on a shoulder injury, as well as Cian Healy who is being examined for a stiff neck issue picked up between the last two losses to Toulon and Ulster.

It remains to be seen how long the latter is marked absent. O’Connor did say he may be a possibility for Edinburgh, but the reality is that no-one knows just yet the seriousness or otherwise of the complaint. Joe Schmidt will take an interest there.

O’Connor side-stepped yet again the criticism aimed at him by Schmidt and the IRFU’s Performance Director David Nucifora prior to their defeat to Ulster a fortnight ago when they took exception to his carping about player welfare and availability issues.

Maybe post-season, he said, but first things first.

Jack McGrath slots in for Healy tonight while Jordi Murphy for Dominic Ryan is the only other switch up front. Dave Kearney returns from injury to replace Fitzgerald, Ian Madigan replaces Gordon D’Arcy in midfield and Eoin Reddan takes over from Isaac Boss at nine.

It means D’Arcy will start what may be his last ever home game on the bench while Shane Jennings will miss out entirely on one last run out in Ballsbridge due to a belated return from concussion that sees him short on match fitness this week.

“It would have been nice to send him out a bit differently,” said O’Connor.

Just one more regret in a season full of them.

LEINSTER:

R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B Te’o, I Madigan, D Kearney; J Gopperth, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; J Murphy, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.

BENETTON TREVISO:

J Hayward; A Pratichetti, L Morisi, E Bacchin, L Nitoglia; S Christie, E Gori; M Zanusso, D Giazzon, R Harden; M Fuser, C Van Zyl; P Derbyshire, N Cattina, M Luamanu.

Referee:

L Hodges (WRU).

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