Leinster will kick off round 15 of the RaboDirect PRO12 in the Welsh capital tonight, facing a Cardiff Blues side that is shorn of 22 of the region’s players at present.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Thursday, February 20
CARDIFF BLUES (9th) v LEINSTER (2nd), Arms Park, 8.05pm (live RTÉ Two/BBC 2 Wales)
Team News: The Leinster team to face Cardiff Blues in Thursday’s RaboDirect PRO12 match at the Arms Park has been named.
With players once again unavailable due to Ireland commitments this week, the province’s head coach Matt O’Connor has made wholesale changes to his pack and a number of changes to the back-line.
Most notably both Richardt Strauss and Luke Fitzgerald return from injury and are both named to start, albeit that Fitzgerald will again be assessed ahead of the game in Cardiff.
Following on from last weekend’s powerful display from the forwards, Leinster will be hoping for more of the same but from a completely new starting eight.
Michael Bent, hooker Strauss and Tadhg Furlong make up the front row with Tom Denton and Quinn Roux selected in the second row. Bent will win his 25th Leinster cap at the Arms Park.
In the back row Kevin McLaughlin captains the side from blindside flanker, with Academy player and former Ireland Under-20 international Jack Conan donning the number 8 jersey for his first Leinster senior start.
Dominic Ryan fills the openside berth after impressing off the replacements bench in the bonus point win over the Dragons.
In the backs Noel Reid and Brendan Macken get another outing at centre with this the third game in a row that they have started alongside each other.
Zane Kirchner continues at full-back with Darragh Fanning once again selected on the wing but switching to the right to accommodate Fitzgerald on the left. Should Fitzgerald not be cleared to play, Sam Coghlan Murray will start instead of him.
At half-back Eoin Reddan gets the nod again at scrum half having fully recovered from a calf injury with Jimmy Gopperth lining out in the number 10 shirt.
In the corresponding fixture last September, Leinster won but were made to work very hard for the result in front of a packed RDS, winning 34-20 in the end with tries from Sean Cronin, Dominic Ryan, Ian Madigan and a penalty try.
Meanwhile, flanker Josh Navidi makes a welcome return for Cardiff as they host defending league champions Leinster.
Navidi has been out of action through injury since last month’s Heineken Cup pool clash with Toulon, but the fit-again Wales international is now recalled by Blues as they hunt a crucial league victory.
Director of rugby Phil Davies makes a total of seven changes to his starting line-up with exciting young wing Owen Jenkins, who last month signed a long-term deal at Blues, one of four changes to the backs division.
Gavin Evans is named at inside centre where he will partner Isaia Tuifua, while a new-look half-back pairing will see Gareth Davies and Lewis Jones join forces.
Sam Hobbs will captain the team from the front row, while James Down is recalled for his second start of the season in the PRO12.
Macauley Cook moves to blindside flanker where he links up with Navidi and Ireland Wolfhounds cap Robin Copeland in the back row.
Changes on the replacements bench include a call-up for back rower Luke Hamilton and Wales Under-20 scrum half Tomos Williams.
CARDIFF BLUES: Dan Fish; Owen Jenkins, Isaia Tuifua, Gavin Evans, Harry Robinson; Gareth Davies, Lewis Jones; Sam Hobbs (capt), Kristian Dacey, Scott Andrews, James Down, Filo Paulo, Macauley Cook, Josh Navidi, Robin Copeland.
Replacements: Rhys Williams, Tom Davies, Patrick Palmer, Chris Dicomidis, Luke Hamilton, Tomos Williams, Simon Humberstone, Tom Williams.
LEINSTER: Zane Kirchner; Darragh Fanning, Brendan Macken, Noel Reid, Luke Fitzgerald/Sam Coghlan Murray; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Michael Bent, Richardt Strauss, Tadhg Furlong, Tom Denton, Quinn Roux, Kevin McLaughlin (capt), Dominic Ryan, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack O’Connell, Edward Byrne, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock, Luke McGrath, Ian Madigan, Darren Hudson.
Referee: Andrew McMenemy (Scotland)
Assistant Referees: Gwyn Morris, Greg Morgan (both Wales)
Television Match Official: Paul Adams (Wales)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Cardiff Blues to win: 12/5; Draw: 20/1; Leinster to win: 1/3
Pre-Match Quotes: Phil Davies (Cardiff Blues) – “In all the Irish provinces there is huge depth and Leinster will be strong no matter what side they select. They showed that last weekend against the Dragons as they claimed a bonus point win.
“We have a total of 22 players missing in total, either away on international duty or injured, but have great faith in our boys and I know they can do a great job. We have a number of young players involved and it’s exciting to see them get an opportunity to impress.
“The squad has worked very hard and we’ve had good patches throughout this season. But this is the most important period we have had and we are going to have this season.
“After the frustration of the last match against Glasgow, the quick turnaround it’s great.
“It’s a big challenge as we hunt a top six place and we need to start getting positive results. It’s vital we get the team emotionally and physically ready for this game and hopefully we will have a big crowd right behind us to see us tackle the champions.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Cardiff Blues – Points: Leigh Halfpenny 98; Tries: Kristian Dacey 4; Leinster – Points: Jimmy Gopperth 95; Tries: Noel Reid, Jack McGrath, Darren Hudson 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, February 19, 2011 – Cardiff Blues 11 Leinster 3, Cardiff City Stadium
Friday, December 2, 2011 – Leinster 52 Cardiff Blues 9, the RDS
Saturday, January 7, 2012 – Leinster 19 Cardiff Blues 23, Cardiff City Stadium
Saturday, October 27, 2012 – Leinster 59 Cardiff Blues 22, the RDS
Friday, February 8, 2013 – Cardiff Blues 11 Leinster 26, Cardiff Arms Park
Friday, September 27, 2013 – Leinster 34 Cardiff Blues 20, the RDS
– Cardiff Blues’ only victory in their last seven RaboDirect PRO12 contests came at home to the Newport Gwent Dragons on New Year’s Day
– The Blues have beaten an Irish province just once in their last eight encounters: 21-10 against Connacht at the Arms Park in round 2 this season
– Leinster have been defeated just once in the PRO12 since round 5: 11-6 at Edinburgh on December 20
– The Leinstermen have not been defeated by a Welsh region in any competition since they visited the Ospreys in the PRO12 in November 2012
– Cardiff Blues have won just one of their last 14 encounters with Leinster since 2007: 11-3 in the PRO12 at Cardiff City Stadium in February 2011