As the new year fast approaches, there is time for one final big game. After a stellar year for Irish rugby can Leinster exert their dominance domestically one more time?
As expected, the players rested for the narrow, lucky victory over Connacht last Saturday return, although there are a few relatively new faces on the bench.
|Dave Kilcoyne||1||Cian Healy|
|Niall Scannell||2||James Tracy|
|John Ryan||3||Tadhg Furlong|
|Jean Kleyn||4||Scott Fardy|
|Tadhg Beirne||5||James Ryan|
|Fineen Wycherley||6||Rhys Ruddock|
|Chris Cloete||7||Josh van der Flier|
|CJ Stander (Captain)||8||Jack Conan|
|Conor Murray||9||Luke McGrath|
|Joey Carbery||10||Johnny Sexton (Captain)|
|Keith Earls||11||James Lowe|
|Rory Scannell||12||Rory O’Laughlin|
|Dan Goggin||13||Garry Ringrose|
|Andrew Conway||14||Dave Kearney|
|Mike Haley||15||Jordan Larmour|
|Jeremy Loughman||17||Peter Dooley|
|Stephen Archer||18||Michael Bent|
|Billy Holland||19||Ross Malony|
|Arno Botha||20||Max Deegan|
|Alby Mathewson||21||Hugh O’Sullivan|
|Tyler Bleyendall||22||Ciarán Frawley|
|Darren Sweetnam||23||Noel Reid|
We almost got more than we bargained for last week with Connacht taking us to the final whistle. That last ten minutes of play where Leinster overcame a seventeen point deficit is worth watching again and again.
We were lucky. Certainly the Leinster bench was packed with firepower. Yes, Connacht were going to run out of steam, especially with the speed they started the match. But who would expect to peg back a team with that sort of lead?
Connacht probably made a few simple errors in that phase of play. It is harder to keep playing the sort of attacking rugby that got them the lead when you get close to the finish line. Game management thinking comes into play, trying to take time off the clock and starve the opposition of time on the ball.
Thanks to a few big breaks out of defence, this tactic did not work. Connacht found themselves back on their own line defending resolutely, but to no avail.
What did Leinster learn? Some of the younger members of the squad felt their first beating. It was a beating. That they somehow pulled the result out of the fire doesn’t lessen, I hope, that feeling of being up against a team of such ferocity, that wants your blood.
Munster took a narrow beating from Ulster. Wouldn’t it be nice to ensure that Santa Claus does not make a late delivery to Limerick?
They will be feeling the pressure, and will give this one their all with a few but not all their big names back in the side.
Conor Murray is the one we should watch closely. He was sorely missed by the Munster men in the Aviva. His calm, assured play behind the scrum gives a huge boost to all the other players. We have not had much of a chance to see him with Joey Carberry, and their match-up against the Leinster nine and ten of Sexton and McGrath is worth the admission fee alone.
We see ex-Leinster academy Tadhg Beirne in the pack. He has robbed his fair share of Leinster line outs and legally stopped our mauls. At the Aviva, while he had some success, the Leinster forwards dealt with him better in the past. I see no reason why that should change.
Expect a terrific front row battle. Healy and Furlong make an admirable pair of props, and Tracy is a good scrummager. Kilcoyne, Scannell and Ryan will be familiar foes. These six will play out their own microcosm of the larger game. Every scrum will contain plot twists, surprise endings and shenanigans as they try to out-wit and out-play each other.
James Lowe returns to the side. His off-loading style is spreading within Leinster; we even saw Scott Fardy send Dan Leavy through to score. He adds more, however, then this exquisite skill, adding energy to every aspect of the game. With Dave Kearney and Jordan Larmour making up the back three, there will be plenty of attacking opportunities.
They face up against Earls, Conway and Haley. The former two are well known to us, Conway beginning his professional career in blue colours. The dangers they present are many and there are bound to be fireworks tomorrow night from these opposing sets.
I’m less familiar with Mike Haley, one of the exiles recruited from English clubs. Qualifying to play for Ireland through a maternal grandmother, Munster signed him earlier this year from the Sale Sharks.
He has scored a couple of tries this season already, and leads the Munster statistics for most try assists with four. He is battle hardened from his years at Sale. Looking forward to seeing what he is made of, from an Irish perspective at least.
Sexton v. Carbery
The big battle that everyone, including Joe Schmidt is watching is how this pair match off against each other. We were robbed of the chance at the Aviva, Ross Byrne played, so this has been building up for a while. The incumbant against his challenger is the subtitle to this game.
If things get tight the game could be won or lost by a special move or a bad mistake by one of these two players. My money is on Sexton to make zero mistakes and probably make a huge, game-changing play while he is on the pitch.
It might be a clever move, saved for months until this fixture. Or it could be some off-the-cuff cleverness, taking advantage of the situation in front of him. Or, knowing how Johnny likes to be on the line in attack and defence, it could be a huge defensive play, possibly against Carbery himself. But I feel that it is coming.
Sexton seems to simply have more moves than Carbery, more poise and patience (although he does not have much patience, but more than the Munster player). If it were down to just these two, I think the game would be a foregone conclusion.
It’s not though. It never is down to just two players.
That’s where Conor Murray comes in. Injured for so long, but looking fully fit again and beginning to work his way back into provincial, and come February, international matters.
He has a clear edge on Luke McGrath. Arguable a bigger edge than Sexton has on Carbery. If there is a single player that can swing this away from Leinster, I think it is Murray.
The weather is most likely going to be dry, with a light wind. It should make for a great game. Leinster has momentum at the moment and will be desperate to finish the year on a high.
The spread is minus three for Leinster, and it feels about right for a bet. A handicap draw is also a possibility at 18/1.