Leinster have taken few chances with their team selection as they travel west to take on a Connacht side (7.15pm) that gave them a major scare at the RDS in the first half of the season, writes Brendan Cole.
Pat Lam’s men lost 13-16 as a desperate rearguard action just failed to repel a powerful assault by the Leinster scrum. Connacht also beat Leinster with relative ease when they visited the Sportsground last season, though the visitors were distinctly understrength on that occasion.
Given those results, and the need to have his front liners tuned up heading into key Heineken Cup fixtures over the next two weeks, it is no surprise to see Matt O’Connor send out an all-star backline that is arguably Leinster’s strongest possible named.
The pack has less established big names, but the likes of Martin Moore and Jordi Murphy bring burgeoning reputations, while Jamie Heaslip is a reassuring presence for away supporters at number eight.
On the Connacht side, the results have not quite come right yet in the league, but their form improved steadily over November and December, one freakishly heavy defeat to Edinburgh aside. The away win over Toulouse was the standout evidence of that, but Connacht also picked up three bonus points and a win in their last five games in that period.
The major point of interest is the selection of 21-year-old Athlone native Jack Carty to start at out-half, with Dan Parks on the bench. Like any young Irish prospect in the key position, he can expect to be watched closely by a host of interested parties tonight.
Robbie Henshaw’s performance at outside-centre against Brian O’Driscoll, the man he could one day replace at international level in that same role, will also be closely observed.
Henshaw has already proved he is an outstanding talent, and thrived as a counter-attacker from full-back against Toulouse. A leggy runner and close to 6’4, his long-term future may well end up being in the back-three but any further indications the 20-year-old gives that he can be Ireland’s long-term solution at 13 will be more than welcome.
Overall, it is hugely positive to see an all-Irish backline with an average age of 22 named by the province with the smallest talent pool.
Up front, Connacht field the same eight that performed creditably in last week’s bad-tempered defeat to Munster. It is a pack that has plenty of character and they may fancy they can get some traction against a Leinster side that has shown some vulnerability to a confrontational approach.
On balance, this close to full-strength Leinster XV looks like being good enough to cope in the tight five and strong enough back row and backline to overwhelm for periods of what should be an open and high-paced encounter.
RaboDirect Pro12 prediction: Connacht 17-25 Leinster
Connacht: Darragh Leader; Fionn Carr , Robbie Henshaw, Eoin Griffin, Matt Healy; Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion; Brett Wilkinson, Jason Harris-Wright, Nathan White, Mick Kearney, Craig Clarke (captain), Andrew Browne, John Muldoon, Eoin McKeon.
Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Denis Buckley, Rodney Ah You, Michael Swift, George Naoupu, Paul O'Donohoe, Dan Parks, Tiernan O'Halloran.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Zane Kirchner, Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan; Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Devin Toner, Tom Denton, Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack O'Connell, Mike Ross, Mike McCarthy, Dominic Ryan, Isaac Boss, Jimmy Gopperth, Dave Kearney.