For the first time in the Magners League, Leinster arrive in Galway for an Irish interprovincial behind hosts Connacht on the league table.
It is a fact that will not have been lost on either side, and as a result Connacht coach Eric Elwood believes Saturday’s match at the Galway Sportsground (6.05pm ) has the hallmarks of a hugely competitive clash.
“This is a derby match against Leinster, we have a decent record at home, it should be a sell-out crowd, and it has all the makings of a great match,” he says.
“Leinster have momentum with two great wins in Europe, and they have an extra incentive because we are currently ahead of them in the league. I believe they will show us respect, and travel strong.”
However Elwood believes Connacht, if they play to potential, can produce a third successive win at home against their opponents.
At the heart of Connacht’s game will once again be the performance of the pack, which stood up to Bayonne last week and carved out a 16 - 13 win necessary to keep their European campaign on track.
“Games are won in the forwards. They set the platform, they set the tone, the speed at the rucks, and we are looking very much to be on top. Last weekend the lads showed great character and a fighting spirit against a Bayonne side with a €15.9 million budget, but we came out the right side of the result. Yes, if we get the performance, quality rugby, and the win, that’s the perfect scenario, but I will take winning ugly every week.”
As a result it is hard to see Elwood making any changes to that starting line-up and Elwood will be hoping for more man of the match performances from Irish squad members Sean Cronin and John Muldoon, who is still getting back to full fitness after his return two weeks ago. Johnny O’Connor was in top form last weekend despite playing on the blindside, alongside Ray Ofisa. In the backs the hard-hitting Niva Ta’auso and Keith Matthews stymied much of Bayonne’s attack last weekend, while Gavin Duffy, also selected on the Irish squad, continues to flourish under the high ball and lead the counterattack alongside Fionn Carr.
With Leinster strong up front, Elwood has concentrated this week on the set piece, but the defence, which has shown marked improvements under new defence coach Mike Foreshaw, will need to be at their best from Leinster’s renowned strikepower - with or without Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon Darcy.
“They are going to ask questions. They have quality players and have the capability to score tries from anywhere and they are exceptionally dangerous from set pieces, but our defence has been working extremely hard and we are now getting rewards, and I am expecting us to have the same work ethic and mindset on Saturday.”
As always Leinster on paper are overwhelming favourites, but Elwood believes Connacht boasts elements that can overcome any team.
“They are full of internationals and on paper we don’t stand a chance - no matter who we are playing,” says Elwood. “ But we don’t operate under those rules. We have a certain strength that is different to other teams and that’s what we bring to the fore when we play. It would be foolish to say we have more strike power, but we work extremely hard and there are other elements we bring to our game.”
Last weekend Connacht showed an intensity and aggression, particularly at the breakdown, that kept Bayonne pegged inside their own half for long periods, and despite being reduced to 14 men after the break, their defensive prowess was once again the hallmark of their success.
Connacht met Bayonne’s big pack measure for measure, led by captain John Muldoon, man of the match Sean Cronin, Mike McCarthy, and an in-form Johnny O'Connor, and although the scrum proved something of a lottery, Connacht took the game to their opponents. Sean Cronin scored an opportunistic try to take a half time lead, when Gavin Duffy finished off after another Cronin break, Connacht led 16 - 6. They did let the visitors back into the contest, but a series of crunching tackles forced the turnovers, and an immense scrum kept the momentum with the home side.