This is the season for Connacht. In 13 days, Leinster will return to Galway for a glamorous game that will turn the eyes west to the first knockout game in the province’s Heineken Champions Cup history.
It’s just their luck to draw their neighbors and competition favorites in this tie, but they’ll do their best knowing that over the course of two legs it’s either winning or going home.
However, there is a strong case for today’s United Rugby Championship meeting is from Connacht’s point of view the most important of the three games between the teams. The URC may not have the same appeal, but this is Andy Friend’s side’s path back to the European top flight next season and they’ve left themselves little room for manoeuvre.
Certainly the planning is working in Connacht’s favor.
Friend is without Finlay Bealham, Mack Hansen and Bundee Aki but he still has a team that looks closer to first choice than Leo Cullen, who is without most of his Irish stars who have a weekend after the Six Nations . Leinster can be weak, but they are rarely weak.
Sure, they’ve been a bit more vulnerable without their front players for the past two seasons, but there’s still a tinge of quality running through the blue team this week, and for many players this is their last chance to put themselves in the spotlight for the most important part of the season .
Motivation will not be a problem for the champions, who are just a point ahead of Ulster at the top of the division.
They arrive with the best attack of the tournament and will have noticed that only Zebre has conceded more points than Connacht this season.
Last time out they were embarrassed by Edinburgh with a defeat unthinkable for their rivals and these days off are why they are currently ninth and fighting for a place in the play-offs and Champions Cup rugby .
They usually have no problem getting up for these local derbies, but rarely are they under so much pressure to get the result.
It’s a good test of character for a team who have produced exquisite rugby this campaign.
They took the game to Leinster in their last meeting before being blown away, but will be confident they can stay the course longer on home soil.
For Jack Carty there is the added incentive of outshining Ross Byrne, who is arguably the next man for his Ireland spot.
This week the Connacht captain was slammed by Ronan O’Gara for his poor performance against Edinburgh and it should hurt.
The return to Ireland’s Six Nations line-up was a success but he will have scheduled more than a few minutes off the bench in Paris. With New Zealand on the horizon, he knows a strong finish to the season can cement his place on the Tour.
Byrne finds his way out of the Irish loop but fully familiar within Leinster.
Tonight he will be behind a pack capable of gaining the upper hand and alongside a half-back in Luke McGrath, whom he knows well. The duo have competed together 12 times this season.
That continuity gives Leinster some solace and the return of Ciarán Frawley to midfield adds another layer to the visitors’ attack.
However, Frawley and Jamie Osborne are an inexperienced pair compared to Tom Daly and Tom Farrell and the ex-Leinster duo in green will hope to gain the upper hand.
Daly’s return to fitness increases Connacht’s ability to win the kick fight and he and Carty will put pressure on Rory O’Loughlin, Tommy O’Brien and Jimmy O’Brien in the back three.
Up front, Connacht-bound prop Peter Dooley gets a chance to show his future fans what he can do in the scrum, and the presence of young wild boy Joe McCarthy in the back row will be worth it after his early call-up for Ireland to be watched.
Alongside him, Ross Molony has been quietly impressive all year and is close to international reckoning at this point.
Leinster’s tight five looks meaner than them Home team but the back row fight is looking good as Cian Prendergast and Conor Oliver look to damage Rhys Ruddock and Scott Penny on the flanks. Connacht has more experience in reserve and Leinster will debut Chris Cosgrave when he is unveiled.
Bookmakers are heavily leaning towards Leinster but at home and with a real reason to get the result there is every chance the westerners can pull off the performance they need to keep their dreams of a top eight finish alive to obtain.
CONNACHT – T O’Halloran; J Porch, T Farrell, T Daly, O McNulty; J Carty (Captain), K Marmion; Buckley D, Heffernan D, Aungier J; O Dowling, N. Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, J Butler. Representatives: J. Murphy, M. Burke, G. McGrath, U. Dillane, P. Boyle, C. Blade, S. Arnold, D. Kilgallen.
LEINSTER—J O’Brien; T O’Brien, J Osborne, C Frawley, R O’Loughlin; R. Byrne, L. McGrath (Captain); P. Dooley, J. Tracy, M. Ala’alatoa; R Molony, J McCarthy; R Ruddock, S Penny, M Deegan. Representatives: S Cronin, E Byrne, T Clarkson, J Murphy, M Moloney, N McCarthy, D Hawkshaw, C Cosgrave.
REF – C Busby (IRFU)
Connacht vs Leinster,
Live, RTE 2/Premier Sports, 7.35am
https://www.independent.ie/sport/rugby/pro14/jack-carty-returns-to-fold-as-connacht-look-for-first-blood-in-leinster-trilogy-41489253.html Jack Carty returns to get out while Connacht searches for First Blood in The Leinster Trilogy