Leinster will provide litmus test for Connacht's improving form

Captain Jarrad Butler, who has extended his contract till 2022, leads his side against Leinster in tonights first interprovincial at the Galway Sportsground (Friday 7.15pm)

Captain Jarrad Butler, who has extended his contract till 2022, leads his side against Leinster in tonights first interprovincial at the Galway Sportsground (Friday 7.15pm)

Leinster will provide Connacht's improving maturity under pressure with a litmus test on Saturday when the Guinness PRO14 champions arrive in Galway for the first of this season's much-anticipated interprovincial clashes.

The Galway Sportground is already a near sell-out with extra seating erected for this occasion as both sides meet for the first time this season looking for the bragging rights.

The visitors, of course, are favourites. The current champions sit atop Conference A unbeaten, and without their World Cup players. Their strength in depth is such that players Devin Toner, Dave Kearney, James Lowe, Caelin Doris, Jamieson Gibson Park, Max Deegan, Joe Tomane, and Scott Fardy, have helped rack up decisive victories over Benetton (away ) 27-32, Ospreys 53-5, Edinburgh 40-14, and Dragons 50-15. The only unusual result, 0-3 victory in Parma against Zebre, was somewhat reminiscent of Connacht's 5-6 win at the venue last season.

Thus Leinster are the pacesetters in Conference A, the team to beat, and Connacht's Andy Friend says the fixture will provide the squad with a measure of how far Connacht have grown this season.

"They have incredible depth in their squad and that is what we are trying to build too, so it will be a great challenge us, and a match up to see how good our depth is," he says. "I'd love to see their best team because it gives us the best challenge."

Friend will confirm his starting XV later in the week, and is expected to introduce his World Cup players Jack Carty and Bundee Aki into the 23. While young Conor Fitzgerald has grown immeasurably since his debut under pressure this season, Friend may well opt to give the 22-years-old a rest.

"Everything has been about 'if you are delivering and you are going well, we'll keep you going', but Conor will need a rest, and returning World Cup players are a little different too. Conor played six on the bounce and what a performance he has put in, but he's probably earned the right for a break."

Centres Tom Farrell and Peter Robb have been playing well as a partnership in the last two fixtures, and Friend may opt to spring Aki from the bench for this clash. In addition Finlay Bealham, Sean O'Brien and Matt Healy have also been declared fit.

Whatever the 23, Connacht go into the match with a huge degree of confidence after their four wins on the trot, but a home win over Leinster will require another step-up in performance, and a continuation of their proud defensive record.

"This game is all about not making errors and forcing the opposition to make errors, We will try to attack in all areas and they will do the same as us, it's the team that handles it best."

After two defeats to Leo Cullen's team last season - the RDS outing most memorable for Leinster's 17-point turnaround after Connacht had led 29-12 with 11 minutes remaining- Connacht know what is coming.

"It has not been talked about, we are very aware of it. Whether you were involved or not, you would remember that. I think it is one of those games we could have sneaked away with, and we have talked about having to be an 80 minute team on Friday night. If you are a 60 minute team or 70 minute team, Leinster will beat you."

"Leinster are are top of the table, we are second in ours - in fact all the Irish teams are on top, which is a great reflection of Irish Rugby."

The fixture comes after Connacht confirmed contract extensions for Sean O'Brien, Tiernan O'Halloran, Tom Farrell and captin Jarrad Butler.

"They are players who would have attracted attention from other areas, so what's pleasing for Connacht is they wanted to stay here," he says. "Both Sean and Tiernan are in our leadership group. We know what they can do on the field, and off it they are growing as leaders, driving standards for us, and it's important to have local boys who can do that.

"They are key to our ambitions and their signings are a great boost for the rest of the squad and everyone who supports Connacht Rugby."

Friend believes Butler has what it takes to play for Ireland when he qualifies at the end of the season.

"As a footballer, he's one of the most effective - he just nails every detail every single time. Secondly, he's a decent human being who wants to learn and grow as a leader. He has an amazing presence in the group, his communication skills with his peers and referees is coming along with every game, and he's a young bloke who we are only starting to see what he can do."

Butler was once again influential in Connacht's latest win in Wales when they overcame Ospreys 20-10 in Liberty Stadium.

After three bonus point wins, they went into this contest with confidence, and in miserable conditions, were forced to dig deep for the victory - their first at Liberty Stadium since their PRO12 winning title year, and their fourth in 16 years against the Swansea outfit.

Connacht could thank a solid first half for the win, having enjoyed a 17-3 lead after taking control of both territory and possession for the opening 40 minutes. Despite an early Ospreys penalty kick from outhalf Luke Price, Connacht grabbed the initiative, responding almost immediately with a try from Niyi Adeolokun. Having marked his first start last weekend with a try, Adeolokun capitalised on some slick handling before kicking ahead and winning the race to touch down, with outhalf Conor Fitzgerald converting. He tacked on a penalty after 17 minutes to keep Connacht on the front foot, and when Ospreys had conceded one penalty too many, flanker Dan Lydiate was yellow-carded and Connacht took advantage. From a five metre scrum, No 8 Paul Boyle found space to supply centre and Man of the Match Peter Robb, who gave his opponents no chance with his direct charge to the line. Fitzgerald added the extras to push Connacht into a 17-3 lead. The home team staged a second-half comeback when veteran James Hook introduced to steer the Swansea side. In the 55th minute the home side struck for their first try through hooker Sam Parry, with Hook adding the conversion. However Fitzgerald was able to tack on a penalty five minutes later to restore the 10 point lead.

Connacht v Ospreys: D Leader, N Adeolokun, T Farrell, P Robb, J Porch, C Fitzgerald, K Marmion; D Buckley, D Heffernan, D Robertson-McCoy, U Dillane, J Maksymiw, E Masterson, J Butler ©, P Boyle. Replacements: C Gallagher for Dillane (HT ), C Blade for Marmion (50m ), M Burke for Buckley and C Kenny for Robertson McCoy (57 ), R Copeland for Maksymiw (62 ), J Murphy for Heffernan and S Fitzgerald for Adeolokun (both 65m ), T Daly for Robb (75 ).


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