Young second row Niall Murray will make his first senior start for Connacht when they face Conference A leaders Leinster in the GUINNESS PRO14 at the RDS on Saturday (kick-off 5.30pm). Limited match tickets are available to buy online here.
The 20-year-old Roscommon native came off the bench in Connacht’s recent Heineken Champions Cup win over Gloucester, but this is his first time to make his home province’s starting XV.
Gavin Thornbury, who has been out of action since late October, returns from an arm injury to partner Murray in the second row. Denis Buckley also comes back into the tight five alongside hooker Shane Delahunt and Dominic Robertson-McCoy.
Eoghan Masterson is included at blindside flanker with his young brother Sean listed among the replacements. Combining again at half-back with Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade also continues as captain in the injury-enforced absence of Jarrad Butler.
With eight personnel changes made to the side that lost 35-3 to Ulster, Stephen Fitzgerald and Niyi Adeolokun are brought into the back-three alongside Australian John Porch, and the versatile Kyle Godwin moves to midfield where he partners former Leinster centre Tom Daly.
Speaking ahead of the festive period’s final interprovincial match, Connacht head coach Andy Friend said: “We are fully aware of the challenge we face away to Leinster in the RDS. They have been impressing week in, week out in the GUINNESS PRO14 and the Champions Cup and have set the standard so far this season.
“We really challenged them in the corresponding fixture last season and the lesson from that game is that to beat them you need to deliver a top class performance over 80 minutes, or they will punish you. That’s exactly what we are asking of our boys, a consistent performance over the eighty minutes.
“I’m delighted for Niall Murray who gets his first start in a Connacht jersey, and there’s no bigger challenge for him than going to the RDS to face Leinster. He has really developed his game and is an exciting prospect for the future. He has a good group of experienced heads around him so that is always a help when you’re making your first start.”
CONNACHT (v Leinster): Stephen Fitzgerald; Niyi Adeolokun, Kyle Godwin, Tom Daly, John Porch; Conor Fitzgerald, Caolin Blade (capt); Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Dominic Robertson-McCoy, Niall Murray, Gavin Thornbury, Eoghan Masterson, Paul Boyle, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Tom McCartney, Paddy McAllister, Conor Kenny, Joe Maksymiw, Sean Masterson, Stephen Kerins, David Horwitz, Tiernan O’Halloran.