Saturday 25 November 2017

Out-half battle begins for Jim

Gopperth given nod to stake claim for No 10 slot in Ravenhill friendly as Madigan waits in wings

Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth during pre-season squad training. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile
Leinster's Jimmy Gopperth during pre-season squad training. Picture: David Maher/Sportsfile

WHILE Racing Metro's Jonny Sexton will go blow-to-blow against Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon in the South of France tonight, Ian Madigan and Jimmy Gopperth will begin their tussle for the Leinster number 10 jersey in Belfast.

New Zealander Gopperth will take first shot at the title 'Leinster's number one playmaker' outside sharp scrum-half John Cooney in what are sure to be difficult circumstances.

Madigan and his fellow Ireland internationals will wait their turn to renew their allegiance to Leinster and to turn coach Matt O'Connor's theory into practice.

The 30-year-old Gopperth will have to do his thing with nothing more than a skeleton side dominated by the flush of youth with former Ireland U20s Martin Moore and Tadhg Beirne given frontline roles in the front five.

The side will be captained by Rhys Ruddock who forms the back-row unit with Dominic Ryan and number eight Leo Auva'a.

Hooker Aaron Dundon will provide a smidgen of experience for another raw recruit in loose-head Jack O'Connell with Quinn Roux the designated big hitter in the engine room.

The cobwebs will have to be blown clear in double-quick time as O'Connor bids to avoid the sort of energy-sucking start Joe Schmidt had to endure at Leinster.

The current Ireland coach had to fend off calls for his head from some quarters following the loss of two pre-season 'friendlies' and three of the first four league matches.

Coach O'Connor holds back a quartet of exciting prospects for bench duty with last season's U20 World Cup backs Tom Daly, Adam Byrne and Thomas Farrell joined by the electric skills of 18-year-old Billy Dardis.

There is also quality there in the shape of 2013 Young Player of the Year Jordi Murphy, loose-head Jack McGrath and tight-head dark horse Tadhg Furlong, back from serious injury.

Most importantly, the retirement of Eoin O'Malley establishes Brendan Macken as the outstanding candidate as back-up to Brian O'Driscoll at outside centre until such time as O'Malley's place on the roster is filled by a new signing.

Macken must take full advantage of the chance he has been given in these early weeks to show his natural attacking flair and bring his defence up to standard.

He will team-up with familiar friends in Noel Reid, Andy Boyle and Darren Hudson in the back division, completed by former Connacht wing Darragh Fanning.

The sold-out sign was hoisted over Ravenhill on Wednesday, a sign of the drawing power of Leinster, an age-old provincial rivalry and of Ulster's upward curve in expectation and standing.

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe is a year into his tenure without having anything tangible on display for a rookie season that promised so much more than it eventually delivered.

Verdict: Ulster

Ulster: P Nelson, R Scholes, J Payne (captain), C Farrell, M Allen; J McKinney, M Heaney; K McCall, N Annett, D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, N McComb, M McComish, S Doyle, N Williams.

Leinster: D Hudson; D Fanning, B Macken, N Reid, A Boyle; J Gopperth, J Cooney; J O'Connell, A Dundon, M Moore, T Beirne, Q Roux, R Ruddock (capt), D Ryan, L Auva'a.

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