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Leinster head to Dragons den without key stars

By CONOR GEORGE

Tonight, Matt O'Connor gets a first experience of life within the hierarchy of Irish rugby.

O'Connor has been denied access to all the players who are currently training with Ireland. In real terms, he is denied a full starting line-up and two replacements as 17 of his roster are enjoying the salubrious environs of Carton House.

Until now, O'Connor has just heard about the uniqueness of the Irish system, where the national side dictates which players are available to their clubs and, crucially, when.

The former Leicester Tigers coach is extremely fortunate that he is still able to call on some seasoned internationals, including captain Shane Jennings and ex-Lions player Luke Fitzgerald.

South African Zane Kitchner is also afforded the first start of his Leinster career – although it will be a cameo as he is rejoining the Springbok squad this month – while former Australian international Lote Tuqiri is also included.

Under no circumstances can a team containing those talented individuals be called "weak". This is especially true when considering they are also fielding a back-row of Jennings alongside Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan.

But there is a lightweight feel to Leinster's front five. This time last year, Michael Bent was being heralded as the 'next big thing' when he was parachuted into the Ireland team for the November internationals.

He has since plummeted down the ranks and starts tonight's game at loose-head with Martin Moore starting on the other side after he spent the early part of the week training with Ireland.

Quin Roux and Tom Denton provide the timber in the second row but there is a distinct lack of substance there.

The challenge for Leinster is to show they can win games of this nature even when denied access to their marquee players.

Their cause is helped enormously by the presence of their current first choice pivot Jimmy Gopperth, who partners the promising John Cooney at half-back. Gopperth has certainly enjoyed a great start to his Leinster career and has usurped the original heir apparent to Jonathan Sexton's jersey in Ian Madigan.

He started both their opening Heineken Cup games and has shown an ability to get the best out of those around him. If he is afforded a quality of possession and is able to bring Luke Fitzgerald into the game from outside centre, Leinster should win this game with relative ease.

Leinster go into tonight's game on the back of three straight victories in all competitions.

"It has been good to get a run of three wins on the bounce, but each of the players knows that this week we have to step up," said Gopperth.

"There will be a few new faces and it's important that we have a few of the experienced heads back. We will need to tap into all of our experience in Newport because they're going to be pumped up."

Leinster rode their luck against Connacht and were only just about able to put them away in the closing minutes despite Connacht having players in the sin-bin. Their issues last weekend have not been lost on Gopperth.

"We know that there's room for improvement after last weekend, we have to be more clinical at our set-piece and in attack.

"Our defensive effort was good and it will need to be better again this week because the Dragons are a team who like to play with a lot of pace out wide," he said.

DRAGONS: H Amos, T Prydie, P Leach, R Wardle, A Hughes, J Tovey, R Rees; O Evans, S Parry, D Way, A Jones, M Screech, J Groves, L Evans, N Talei. Replacements: H Gustafson, N Williams, F Chaparro, R Sidoli, I Jones, J Evans, K Burton, D Evans.

LEINSTER: Z Kirchner, D Fanning, L Fitzgerald, N Reid, L Tuqiri, J Gopperth, J Cooney; M Bent, A Dundon, M Moore, Q Roux, T Denton, D Ryan, S Jennings, R Ruddock. Replacements: J Tracy, J O'Connell, T Furlong, B Marshall, L Auva'a, L McGrath, C Marsh, B Macken.

Belfast Telegraph

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