This is arguably the standout match of the weekend. An intense clash lies ahead at the RDS as the third and fourth-placed teams in the Magners League look to post an important win, with the play-offs looming large on the horizon.
MAGNERS LEAGUE: Friday, March 4
LEINSTER (3rd) v SCARLETS (4th), the RDS, 7.35pm (live TG4/BBC Wales)
Team News: The Leinster team to face the Scarlets in Friday night’s Magners League encounter at the RDS has been named.
Leo Cullen, Fergus McFadden and Jonathan Sexton return to the starting line-up, having been released from the Ireland camp this week.
Head coach Joe Schmidt has made five changes in personnel – three in the backs and two up front – as the province look to build on last weekend’s 30-5 victory over Benetton Treviso.
Cullen joins fellow Ireland internationals Kevin McLaughlin, Rhys Ruddock and Devin Toner in the pack, with Stan Wright set for his second start of the campaign.
Bank of Ireland Player of the Month Isa Nacewa continues at full-back in a back-three which also includes recent try scorers David Kearney and Niall Morris.
McFadden links up with Eoin O’Malley at centre, and Sexton replaces his St. Mary’s College club-mate Ian McKinley at out-half. He joins Isaac Boss at half-back.
Nathan Hines, who played for Scotland against Ireland last Sunday, is included amongst the replacements alongside Old Belvedere flyer Daniel Riordan, who previously played for Connacht and Munster.
Looking forward to the match, Kevin McLaughlin said: “We always like to think we’re favourites at home. We pride ourselves on making the RDS a bit of a fortress.
“But we have to be wary. We played the Scarlets at the RDS three or four seasons ago, and they absolutely spanked us. We’re very conscious of what they can do.
“They’ve a good offloading game, they’ve a couple of strong runners in the centres and good ball carries in the back row.
“We need to be conscious of their threats and shut them down, and then work on getting our own attacking game right.”
Meanwhile, the Scarlets welcome back four of their young Wales internationals in the form of out-half Rhys Priestland, scrum half Tavis Knoyle and back row duo Rob McCusker and Josh Turnbull.
Priestland and Knoyle form the half-back combination with Gareth Davies reverting to the replacements bench and Dan Newtown moving to full-back.
Turnbull and McCusker link up with Ben Morgan in the back row, with Aaron Shingler switching from blindside flanker to the second row.
There has been a late change to the starting line-up as prop and captain Iestyn Thomas has been ruled out with a minor neck injury. He is replaced by Rhodri Jones, with centre Gareth Maule taking over as skipper.
Continuing the youthful theme, teenage hooker Kirby Myhill has been included on the Welsh region’s replacements bench for the first time.
Scarlets head coach Nigel Davies said: “You can’t go out there to play the former European champions and double Magners League winners without belief and confidence in your game.
“This group really bounced back well (against Edinburgh) under a lot of pressure last week, which was a huge achievement. Our set piece functioned well and we controlled the game in tough conditions.
“We will have to be on the top of our game that’s for sure, but I’m really comfortable with this team in terms of the mix of experience and fresh talent and having four of our Welsh players back has given us a boost.”
LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa; Niall Morris, Eoin O’Malley, Fergus McFadden, David Kearney; Jonathan Sexton, Isaac Boss; Heinke van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss, Stan Wright, Leo Cullen (capt), Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Dominic Ryan, Rhys Ruddock.
Replacements: Jason Harris-Wright, Jack McGrath, Simon Shawe, Nathan Hines, Paul Ryan, Paul O’Donohoe, Ian Madigan, Daniel Riordan.
SCARLETS: Dan Newton; George North, Regan King, Gareth Maule (capt), Joe Ajuwa; Rhys Priestland, Tavis Knoyle; Rhodri Jones, Rhys Lawrence, Rhys Thomas, Lou Reed, Aaron Shingler, Rob McCusker, Josh Turnbull, Ben Morgan.
Replacements: Kirby Myhill, Peter Edwards, Simon Gardiner, Damian Welch, Johnathan Edwards, Gareth Davies, Daniel Evans, Nick Reynolds.
Referee: Andy Macpherson (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Michael Black, Mark Hermin (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Leinster to win: 1/6; Draw: 25/1; Scarlets to win: 4/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Isa Nacewa (Leinster) – “The Scarlets have been on fire this year, and the whole top of the table has crammed up.
“The Scarlets had a good win against us over here a couple of years ago, and it’s still lodged in the back of the guys’ memories. They’re going to bring a strong squad so we’ll have to be well prepared.
“It was definitely a proud moment for me to lead the team out (against Benetton Treviso), but it was disappointing. The last 20 minutes was probably the slowest game of rugby we played all season, just going from set piece to set piece.
“It was just disappointing to drop our standards a bit. We still won 30-5 but it was below par for us.
“It’s healthy to have a lot of competition for places in the team. In the back-line especially, there’s only a certain amount of spots up for grabs each week and the young guys are really pushing hard to get their spot.”
Nigel Davies (Scarlets) – “It’s very tight in the league, we have six games left and there’s a great deal of focus now because of the play-offs.
“We’re going to play a number of the top-placed teams and that means every game is a key one, but we’re still in the fight and that’s a great position for us to be in after last season.
“It’s going to be an intense end to the season and we have a couple of great home fixtures against Munster and the Cardiff Blues to look forward to.
“We want to sign off this latest run of league games with a positive this weekend, before the break. It’s a hugely significant game for us and we’re looking forward to the encounter.
“Leinster are an all-round formidable team, they have a lot of belief, physicality and will look to dominate and always the contact area will be key against any Irish side.
“There will be a really good encounter at 10, it’s been good to have Rhys (Priestland) back this week – he’s looking sharp, very confident and on top of his game and I think he’s been disappointed not to have got more opportunities with Wales so far and I’m sure will be looking to impress again at regional level.”
Top Scorers – 2010/11 Magners League: Leinster – Points: Isa Nacewa 142; Tries: Isa Nacewa, Shane Horgan, David Kearney 4 each; Scarlets – Points: Rhys Priestland 137; Tries: Jonathan Davies 7
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, March 29, 2008 – Scarlets 10 Leinster 24, Stradey Park
Saturday, February 21, 2009 – Scarlets 17 Leinster 31, Parc y Scarlets
Friday, May 8, 2009 – Leinster 45 Scarlets 8, the RDS
Saturday, September 5, 2009 – Scarlets 18 Leinster 16, Parc y Scarlets
Saturday, February 20, 2010 – Leinster 27 Scarlets 14, the RDS
Friday, December 3, 2010 – Scarlets 17 Leinster 17, Parc y Scarlets
– Leinster’s only defeat in their last nine matches in all competitions was an 11-3 loss at the Cardiff Blues in the Magners League on February 19
– The Leinstermen have not lost at the RDS since last season’s Magners League grand final against the Ospreys
– The Scarlets’ six-match losing run in all competitions ended at home to Edinburgh last Thursday
– The Scarlets are winless in their last four encounters with Irish provinces
– The Scarlets have won just one of their last eight clashes with Leinster since 2007, an 18-16 triumph at Parc y Scarlets in the Magners League in September 2009