Leinster’s Connacht clash a rare chance for sentiment as province bids farewell to RDS

Ross Molony, Rhys Ruddock and Ed Byrne all given RDS farewells ahead of their departure from the province at the end of the season

URC: Leinster vs Connacht, Friday May 31st, RDS, 7.35pm kick-off, live on TG4

Sentiment is rarely afforded a look-in when it comes to professional sport but sometimes it manages to elbow its way to the forefront. Friday night is one such occasion as Leinster supporters have been given an opportunity to offer their appreciation to a host of departing players, and in, Rhys Ruddock, a stalwart of 15-years, who will retire at the end of the season. Anecdotally, the game is a sellout.

The emotional and physical legacy of last weekend’s Champions Cup final defeat to Toulouse means that centre Jamie Osborne is the only member of the run-on team in London to back up. Rónan Kelleher and Jack Conan start against Connacht, while Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ryan Baird and Luke McGrath are named among the replacements; all members of the matchday 23 at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium.

Leinster head coach Leo Cullen offered an insight into selection. “It’s an unusual scenario, we know that we have a home quarter-final at the Aviva next week, we don’t know who the opponent is, we don’t know what day it is on. You have come off a final, so it is a six-day turnaround into this week. Some guys played 100 minutes of action last weekend.

“There are some great servants of the club who will play for Leinster who won’t be in the group next season. I’m thinking in particular the guys who have won over 100 caps for Leinster, Ed Byrne, Ross Molony and Rhys Ruddock but there are other players [who move on],” a reference to Michael Ala’alatoa and Charlie Ngatai.

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The pain of the Toulouse defeat has receded a little to be replaced by a singular focus. Getting to any final carries the jeopardy of losing but there is no part of the Leinster coaches or players that would shy away from that scenario. ”I thought James [Ryan] summed it up well in his post-match,” said Cullen.

“Do you want to be in that position where you put yourself in that feeling of absolute agony and devastation? Of course you do. There is no part of us that doesn’t want to be there. You have to understand, there are critics of teams, there are fans of teams, and the fans feel hurt as well. We fully acknowledge that.

“And when people are hurt, listen, we can all say things that sometimes you regret as well, so it’s making sure that we stay tight as a group. We have the opportunity to turn the page to something [the URC] quite quickly, so we just need to focus on that and not feel sorry for ourselves at this moment in time.”

Sam Prendergast, who starts at outhalf for Leinster, has been linked with a loan move next season to join his brother Cian in Connacht. Cullen was understandably reticent on the matter: “It’s speculation.”

“People don’t actually know what the conversations are. I don’t think it is fair on any people involved to air this in public. It’s [Friday night] a great opportunity for Sam to show what he can do. That’s the more important bit from our point of view.”

Garry Ringrose’s continued absence is a week-to-week storyline. Cullen explained: “He is due to [see] the specialist he is dealing with; that conversation is due to happen again this [Friday] afternoon I believe. [It was] a short week, a little bit messy given what we have come off, so it is not like we have had a proper training week to make proper calls.”

Jimmy O’Brien takes over at fullback from Hugo Keenan, who is in Madrid with the Ireland Sevens, while Tommy O’Brien and Rob Russell are named on the wings with Ciarán Frawley once again demonstrating his versatility, lining out this time at inside centre. Cormac Foley partners Prendergast at halfback. Scott Penny leads the team.

Connacht head coach Pete Wilkins has handed 22-year-old Leitrim born wing Shane Mallon a debut. The former Under-20 international played his rugby with Longford RFC from minis until he was 15, was involved in Leinster squads at underage level before joining the Connacht academy and played hurling and football at underage level for Leitrim.

Argentina’s Santiago Cordero makes his first start while at the other end of the scale hooker Dave Heffernan earns his 200th cap for the province. Connacht require a bonus-point victory and a large dollop of good fortune from other results to finish in the top eight with all its attendant benefits.

The visitors have some excellent young prospects in their backline who have showcased that talent on several occasions this season, Shane Jennings, Cathal Forde and David Hawkshaw who has been a conspicuous creative influence. They have enough ballast and grit in the pack to both take the game to their hosts and supply their backs with good quality possession.

The individual tussles add an element of spice to the overall contest, one that should be full of free running endeavour. Leinster want to take some momentum into a quarter-final and mark the final game before redevelopment at the RDS with a win rather than an asterisk.

Leinster: J O’Brien; T O’Brien, J Osborne, C Frawley, R Russell; S Prendergast, C Foley; E Byrne, R Kelleher, T Clarkson; B Deeney, R Molony; R Ruddock, S Penny (capt), J Conan.

Replacements: D Sheehan, M Milne, M Ala’alatoa, R Baird, M Deegan, L McGrath, H Byrne, C Ngatai.

Connacht: S Cordero; S Jennings, D Hawkshaw, C Forde, S Mallon; J Carty, C Blade; P Dooley, D Heffernan, F Bealham; J Joyce, N Murray; C Prendergast, C Oliver, S Jansen.

Replacements: D Tierney-Martin, D Buckley, J Aungier, D Murray, S O’Brien, C Reilly, B Ralston, T Daly.

Referee: C Busby (Ulster)

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