LEINSTER V DRAGONS (Today, KO 6.15)
DUBLIN was awash with sporting chatter last night.
There were those digesting the start in Kazakhstan that Geov-anni Trapattoni’s men made to their World Cup qualifiers.
There were those wearing the black and amber of Kilkenny or maroon of Galway indulging in a bit of verbal jousting after heading to the capital for tomorrow’s All-Ireland hurling final.
And there were those, granted a group much smaller in number, anti-cipating this evening’s RaboDirect Pro12 clash between Newport Gwent Dragons and Leinster.
It may not be a game that has prompted warnings of a “black market frenzy” like that issued yesterday by the Gaelic Athletic Association, but there is an intrigue surrounding the encounter at the Royal Dublin Society that few meetings between the sides have caused.
In truth, the Dragons’ past record in the Irish capital doesn’t really command the respect of Dubliners and create a buzz.
Whether it be Lansdowne Road, Donnybrook or the RDS, they have never won and never even finished within seven points to earn a bonus point.
It’s a history that means the Drag-ons are to Leinster what Connacht are to the Dragons in terms of glamour.
But tonight will see the Dragons trying to build on their comprehensive opening bonus-point win against Zebre while Leinster attempt to put a drubbing at Parc y Scarlets behind them.
And this evening’s hosts are not the Heineken Cup vintage that swept aside Ulster at Twickenham to retain their crown.
There’s no Brian O’Driscoll, no Sean O’Brien, no Jamie Heaslip, no Jonathan Sexton, no Isaac Boss, no Cian Healy, no Luke Fitzgerald, no Rob Kearney.
That’s not to say there’s no quality – after all, their second string won at Rodney Parade at the end of last season – but there is a vulnerability to them.
That was emphasised by the way that they were bullied by the Scarlets in their Llanelli hammering a week ago, the west Walians doing a number on them at the breakdown.
It was a performance that led to forwards coach Jono Gibbes bemoaning their soft underbelly early this week, “there’s no hiding away from the fact we weren’t tough enough in the collision.”
There is no doubt that the European champions, who are bolstered by the return of skipper Leo Cullen, will be a different side on their own turf but the Dragons must head into the game with belief.
Darren Edwards’ side may have a Dan Lydiate-sized hole in it but this evening will be the acid test of competition for places.
By all accounts front row selections could be made with the toss of a coin, so Nathan Williams, Sam Parry and Nathan Buck will want to take their chance to impress.
Jevon Groves will want to repeat his terrific display against Zebre at openside now that captain Lewis Evans is back in contention following his calf injury, while Toby Faletau is one player that the Irish public certainly know all about.
He was (by his high standards) quiet in the opener but must be the talisman this evening.
And the three-quarters, the same group that took to the field against the Italians, will want to put in a display that makes it a hat-trick of starts next weekend.
That’s because Cardiff Blues are next up and welcoming their nearest rivals after adding to the five points earned against Zebre, even if it’s a solitary bonus, would mean it has been a good start to the season.
To do that they must defend like they did to earn a clean sheet in their opener and take it to their hosts with ball in hand Leinster have shipped an awful lot of points since returning from holiday – 22 to Gloucester and 43 to Northampton in pre-season then 45 to the Scarlets – and the Rodney Parade region must be as clinical as they were against Zebre.
The hurling will be on the Irish back pages tomorrow regardless of what happens this evening yet the Dragons have the chance to be a lot more than just a footnote in Dublin’s sporting weekend.
But with the Blues looming, they must at the very least avoid allowing Leinster to enjoy their traditional canter to victory.
HOW THEY LINE UP
LEINSTER: I Nacewa, A Conway, B Macken, N Reid, F Carr, I Madigan, J Cooney, J McGrath, S Cronin, J Hagan, L Cullen (captain), Q Roux, B Marshall, S Jennings, L Auva’a. Replacements: T Sexton, H van der Merwe, M Moore, D Toner, J Murphy, L McGrath, C O’Shea, D Hudson.
DRAGONS: D Evans, W Harries, P Leach, A Tuilagi, T Prydie, S Jones, J Evans, N Williams, S Parry, N Buck, A Jones, I Nimmo, H Stoddart, J Groves (captain), T Faletau. Replacements: A Coundley, H Gustafson, T Ryan, L Evans, T Brown, L Davies, A Smith, H Amos.