Connacht’s resurgent home form will be tested on Saturday (4.30pm ) when they enter Leinster’s den for their first Magners League clash this season.
With the New Year fixture postponed - and yet to be scheduled due to Leinster inflexibility - this is the first occasion the two provincial sides will have met since Michael Cheika’s men were crowned European champions.
Few would expect anything other than a Leinster win, but Connacht coach Michael Bradley insists his side can still get something from the tie if they perform to potential.
“Away matches in the Magners are difficult for everyone. Leinster are European champions, are playing at home and are on the top of league while we are at the bottom. Those are the facts, but we don’t go into matches thinking about historical reasons why we should or shouldn’t win. We go into the game with a game plan and, if we execute it, we are confident we can win it. The fancied team doesn’t always win the match - look at Ireland and Scotland last weekend,” he says.
That said, Bradley acknowledges the huge task facing his side against a team he rates as one of the strongest in the league.
“They have a strong squad of players, right through to 32 - one of the strongest in the league. They haven’t lost at home in a long time so they will going in as strong favourites. They have ability, and whatever combination they put out, they have a strong physical pack which is a strong advantage to them. It is a huge challenge for us.”
Bradley will be concerned with injuries to key players, particularly captain John Muldoon (groin ) who was rated 50:50 earlier in the week, and also to Ray Ofisa. In addition centre Niva Ta’auso is out with a recurrence of a knee injury, while scrumhalf Conor O’Loughlin is an unlikely starter. As a result Johnny O’Connor will come into the backrow, joining either captain John Muldoon, if fit, or Mike McComish on the blindside with No 8 George Naoupu. O’Connor enjoyed a stormer in Connacht A’s 19-18 victory over their Ulster counterparts last week with a pack that interestingly was entirely “home-grown”. Others who put their hands up for selection in that victory were Brian Tuohy and Miah Nikora, and it is possible Bradley could give them a run-out on Saturday to ensure they are given an opportunity before the Amlin Cup quarter-final in two weeks. Aidan Wynne will be expected to link up again with Keith Matthews in the centre, while Frank Murphy returns from injury to partner either Ian Keatley or Nikora.
With Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon Darcy, and Shane Horgan ruled out, Cheika has included some of his youngsters alongside a handful of internationals including Leo Cullen, Nathan Hines, Rob Kearney, Eoin Reddan and Jonathon Sexton in his squad. Sexton and Reddan are expected to start, with Girvan Dempsey at fullback. Kearney and rising star Andrew Conway are possible options on the wings with Fergus McFadden and Eoin O’Malley possibly forming the key centre partnership.
Up front Ireland u-20 flanker Rhys Ruddock could make a start alongside the more experienced Cullen, John Fogarty, Stephen Keogh, Malcolm O’Kelly and Shane Jennings.
Last weekend Connacht enjoyed a deserved 16 - 3 victory over the Dragons who had travelled to Galway boosted by their win over Munster. But the home side was superior on the night, capitalising on their forward strength, while their defensive lines never waivered. Ian Keatley, although missing two kicks, directed the play with some neat touchfinders, while Keith Matthews, George Naoupu, Michael Swift, John Muldoon, and a barn-storming effort from Liam Bibo epitomised Connacht's strength in the tackle.
Two penalties within the first eight minutes produced a kickable effort from Ian Keatley to put them 3 - 0 in front. Connacht turned the screw at scrum time and contested the line-outs to establish territorial control, and when Ben Castle was pinged for not rolling away in the tackle, Keatley struck his 20m effort for a 6- 0 lead after 15 minutes. It got even better when, ironically from the Dragons' first sustained attack, Connacht were able to turn over ball just yards from the line and set off downfield. From the kick ahead Dragons' winger Will Harries attempted to clear, but the ball bounced sideways and Liam Bibo supplied Connacht's top try scorer Fionn Carr who added to his tally with a dash from 35m out.
Keatley added the extras for a 13 - 0 lead before Jason Tovey kicked the Dragons' first and only points when the home side was pinged for coming in from the side.
However it was one-way traffic as Connacht, through a superior set piece, denied the visitors possession. They carved out two clear chances through a forward drive and another from a Fionn Carr attack, but were unable to add to their score when they had the visitors under pressure.
Connacht maintainedthe stranglehold after the break, producing a sustained attack on the Dragons line which after some eight phases resulted in a penalty which Keatley struck after 43 minutes. Penalties kept the Dragons in the game, but with Connacht putting in the tackles, they frequently forced the Dragons backwards to ensure the Welsh side exited the west without the consolation of a losing bonus point.
Connacht v Leinster (possible ): G Duffy, L Bibo/B Tuohy, K Matthews, A Wynne, F Carr, M Nikora, F Murphy, B Wilkinson, A Flavin, R Morris, M McCarthy, B Upton, J Muldoon/M McComish, J O’Connor, G Naoupu. Replacements, J Hagan, S Cronin, M Swift, M McComish, C O’Loughlin, I Keatley, T Nathan.
• Connacht Rugby will host a golf classic on the eve of its Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final fixture with Bourgoin. The four-ball stableford will take place at Galway Bay Golf Club on Friday April 9. Teams will cost €400 - which will include four tickets for the match. Details are available from Connacht Rugby on 091-561568.
Tickets for the match are available to the public on a first come basis. The game takes place at the Sportsground on Saturday April 10 with a 1pm kick-off. Tickets are available online through Ticketmaster or by calling in person to the Connacht Branch headquarters at the Sportsground during office hours.