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Monday 20 November 2017

Leinster keen to make amends in the west

Connacht v Leinster, Live KO7.35, TG4

Leinster’s Josh van der Flier
Leinster’s Josh van der Flier
Dan Leavy scores his side’s second try during the Guinness PRO12 match against Ospreys last weekend

Leinster have not found The Sportsground to their liking too often in recent seasons.

There was a time when it was the wind and rain that cut their game plan in two.

Last May, it was the wit and width of Pat Lam's men that brought Leinster to their knees on a warm, sunny day in Murrayfield.

A lot has happened since then.

Connacht lost their skills coach Dave Ellis, their backs coach Andre Bell.

Even more traumatically, their head coach will head to Bristol this summer.

This is even before digging into the losses of lineout leader Aly Muldowney and Ireland centre Robbie Henshaw to their Eastern neighbours.

The net outcome has seen Connacht drop to seventh in the PRO12 League and outside the places for automatic Champions Cup qualification.

Leinster's capture of Stuart Lancaster is, undoubtedly, the most salient factor among many that have led to their recording a record-breaking number of tries (81) for the PRO12 League with three rounds left to play.

Leinster are mindful of the problems that come with losing the week before The Champions Cup semi-final.

It could lead to a slight slip in confidence and a loosening of their grip on a coveted home semi-final.

In contrast, Connacht could be their launch-pad into the build-up for Clermont-Auvergne on Sunday week.

Tough game

"It is in a way, but we are just focussing on the Pro12 this week and playing for that home semi-final.

"It will be a really tough game against Connacht," noted flanker Josh van der Flier.

"Of course, they beat us in the final last year, so we'd be keen to beat them.

"We lost there last year as well, so it's quite a tough place to play.

"We are just focussed on the Pro 12 and trying to beat Connacht."

The injuries to Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy have moved the spotlight onto the back row.

It is just as well for Leo Cullen and Lancaster that Sean O'Brien, Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan are either hitting or holding form.

Then, there is the case of Josh van der Flier, last year's breakout back row, returning from injury to be met with a serious challenge to regain the six or seven shirt.

The AC-joint in his shoulder took a bang against Edinburgh in February to take five weeks out of his season just when he didn't need it.

He has got through two 80 minutes against Cardiff Blues and The Ospreys, sandwiching 20 against Wasps in the European Cup quarter-final.

"I don't feel quite as sharp as I would be if I had played ten matches in a row. That is just the way it is," he said.

This is a fickle game in which one week you are the real deal and the next you are out injured watching someone else assume that role.

It has been the rise of Dan Leavy, more than anyone else, that has threatened Van der Flier's place in the Leinster pecking order.

The former Ireland U20 captain is an all-round athlete with subtlety to his game, appearing off the bench against The Ospreys to pilfer two crucial ruck turnovers.

Van der Flier and Leavy are two very different players with the former's always-on engine, defence and dedication to detail, arguably, making him a more natural blindside.

Either way, the Wesley College graduate is aware of the challenge and he relishes it.

"Everyone is playing well," he said.

"Even if you're coming back from injury, you can't afford a bad game at all because you won't play with everyone playing so well.

"Dan's been brilliant and Jack Conan's been playing unbelievable as well.

"There's Seanie as well and Rhys got Man of the Match a couple of weeks ago."

Luck for Cullen; unlucky for someone else.

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