First I feel the need to repeat my position on the Jamison Gibson-Park citing, despite having made it clear in my writeup for the 1st leg and had a unanimous opinion from the midweek all-Leinster Fan panel on the podcast.
I saw it as a red card, and I also think all the the officials bar the referee agreed. JGP does not lower his position and there is contact with the head. I was not surprised to learn he was cited during the week, although I wondered if the commission would see enough evidence to overturn the decision. What did surprise me about the eventual ruling was that they agreed it was not a red card. So that's where I stand, for the record.
However, since he has been cleared to play by the powers that be, I don't think anyone can have too many complaints about Leinster selecting him, and it is very likely that his inclusion will make a big difference to how Leinster play on Friday so we will see how it goes over with everyone.
Right...on to the occasion itself...I CAN NOT WAIT!!!! I got my first positive COVID test on January 1, 2022 so I am yet to get to a rugby match in this calendar year so wild horses would not keep me away. Getting my stuff together, hopping on the 18 bus, settling down for the match itself, heading for pints afterwards. I'm so looking forward to it I'm ignoring my superstitious side that wouldn't want me to type all of those plans for fear they don't pan out. Bring it on.
And of course being an interprovincial makes it all the more special, with more than a good deal of travelling support to be found around the Aviva Stadium, just how I like my pre and post match atmosphere to be.
The teams have been named, not many changes from last week but still significant ones, let's have a look shall we...
I've already harped on JGP but it deserves mentioning again. His role is pivotal in everything both Leinster and Ireland want to do these days - it's all about tempo and his speed from one breakdown to the next, plus a proficiency in sniping and finding that critical long miss pass in the red zone, are what make Sexton's task as playmaker all that much easier.
But what has also emerged recently is a precision kicking game from our back three. Both in Limerick and Galway recently our opposition have tried to get into territorial battles with the boot and more often than not our trio of Keenan, Lowe and O'Brien come out on top.
All of the above matched with our centre pairing's ability to snuff out offensive strike patterns makes for an optimal backline and should this set of seven remain fit I can see the formation remaining the same for the rest of our involvement in this year's Champions Cup.
It would be hard to think of many clubs in Europe who would turn down the opportunity to include Cian Healy and Dan Sheehan in their starting lineups, unless of course you knew you could reform the dream team front row that is Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher and Tadhg Furlong. They were teased during the week in a tweet from the LR account and it's great to see them back together.
And speaking of dream teams, we once again enjoy one in our back row where Messrs Doris (getting his 50th cap), JVDF & Conan are no doubt set to embark on another might scrap for the Star of the Match award. Maybe there isn't anything new to be said about them, but I for one don't care if I keep repeating how well they play together.
Now all the gushing above makes my thoughts on our second row a little awkward. Ideally, with everyone match fit, I'd like to see the "James (Ryan) Baird" duo. That said, our set pieces were working extremely well in Galway and it would have been harsh to deny Molony & Murphy another start.
With all due respect to Max Deegan, I'm happy to see Rhys Ruddock back in the 23, and with Sheehan also available there's plenty of late ball carrying there should we need it. The reserve halfbacks pick themselves and I definitely like the look of Ciaran Frawley as 23 since he has proven himself not only to be versatile, but also to be ready to wear a much lower number on occasions like this one.
On that midweek pod the panel wondered if Connacht might make a switch at full back to try and negate the advantage we were gaining in the kicking game, but they have stuck with pretty much the same XV apart from one change in the front row.
For me, considering how difficult their route is to the final 8 of the URC, Andy Friend will probably impress on them that this match essentially represents their entire season. Obviously nobody wants to face Leinster away starting at parity let alone five points down, but if they score early as they did last week, that advantage will be wiped out.
Nobody who knows how this Connacht team can perform will be expecting anything less than full commitment right from the kickoff on Friday.
The bookies are annoying me this week, going for a 22-point home win. As far as I'm concerned, I just want us in the quarterfinals. Like I said in the last section, Connacht are likely to hit us early so we need to stay within ourselves and look to take the chances when they come. Same as the first half last week, we should take our threes and hope to extend the margin to 8 and maybe 15 where possible.
Of course we all know the reasons why we pushed for 50+ point leads earlier in the competition but there is no need for it here. This is all part of a specific mission to challenge for a fifth star and if we hope to earn that, we should be winning this tie but there is no need to over extend ourselves if we can avoid it, although naturally the Leinster faithful do always enjoy when they put on a show.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that I won't be too critical if it's not a 4 score winning margin in the day, once we stay accurate where we need to be and not affect my blood pressure in the final quarter I'd be happy enough with a 10-12 point victory myself, and I really do worry about taking our opposition for granted, especially with game changers like Carty, Bundee & Hansen on the pitch.
GET INVOLVED IN THE DISCUSSION
As always I will be giving my thoughts throughout the match on the twitter machine, and at the full time whistle please do tell me what you thought of the occasion by leaving a comment on our Facebook page. If you're heading to the Aviva yourself I hope to see you there and here's to not just a good Friday but a great one! JLP
Connacht : 15. Tiernan O’Halloran 14. John Porch 13. Tom Farrell 12. Bundee Aki 11. Mack Hansen 10. Jack Carty > (C) 9. Caolin Blade
1. Matthew Burke 2. Dave Heffernan 3. Finlay Bealham 4. Gavin Thornbury 5. Leva Fifita 6. Cian Prendergast 7. Conor Oliver 8. Jarrad Butler
Replacements : 16. Jonny Murphy 17. Denis Buckley 18. Jack Aungier 19. Oisín Dowling 20. Abraham Papali’i 21. Kieran Marmion 22. Sammy Arnold 23. Conor Fitzgerald.
Heineken Champions Cup 2021/22 - Last 16 2nd Leg
Friday, April 15, 2022
Ref: Luke Pearce (England)
AR1: Dan Jones (England)
AR2: Paul Dix (England)
TMO: Tom Foley (England)
BT Sports / bein Sports