More than places in the table on the line as Leinster and Connacht meet to ring in the New Year

The festive season packs more fierce rivalries into the fixture list as Leinster prepare to face Connacht

Leo Cullen, Leinster, Connacht,

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

With a win over Munster under their belts already in the festive period, Leinster will be hoping to continue their strong record against the other provinces in the RDS on New Year's Day. 

However, they will also be hoping that 2016 has better things in store for them than the last 12 months did.

Although they arrested their slide with a win at Thomond Park last weekend, there are still plenty of problems for Leo Cullen to overcome as he prepares his side to face Connacht on Friday evening.

So far this season in the Pro 12, Leinster have proven up to the challenge of the other provinces - a knock-down, drag out 8-3 win over Ulster in November was not exactly a memorable occasion, but an explosive try from Garry Ringrose and a late score from Zane Kirchner gave them a confidence-boosting win against rivals Munster just a few short days ago.

It was one that was needed, as a miserable European campaign had people talking worriedly about a period of transition, while Leo Cullen insisted that success against clubs with bigger budgets was almost impossible, and that the team would "need to have a good reassess of where we're going".

December has seen momentum slow for Pat Lam's Connacht team, and while things are still going well in Europe in the Challenge Cup where they sit top of Pool 1, they need to ensure that they don't begin a slide of their own as they take on Cullen's charges. 

A loss to Cardiff and a narrow defeat against Ulster on St. Stephen's Day has seen Lam's side suffer from injuries and struggle to deal with organised defences, lacking a cutting edge that could have seen them top of the Pro 12 table. The absence of Robbie Henshaw would always be noted, but Connacht's dip in form has more or less coincided with the news that he would be out for several weeks with a hand injury which he suffered in the win over Munster. 

Image: ©INPHO/James Crombie

It would have been a great treat to see the potential Ireland centre pairing (if you will allow a flight of fancy) of Ringrose and Henshaw go head to head at the RDS on Friday evening, but with the crucial Connacht man still recovering, it will be up to the Leinster prodigy to prove that Joe Schmidt made the right decision to give him a call up this week. A loss for Connacht here would see Leinster go above them in the table, meaning there’s plenty on the line for the Westerners as they look to start 2016 with some momentum.

Lam makes three changes to his XV that lost to Ulster, with Tom McCartney and openside Jake Heenan returning from injury, while Andrew Browne enters in the second row.

Cullen has chosen to ring in 2016 by making 11 changes to his starting side, again mainly thanks to having a number of players back from injury. Luke McGrath (knee), Johnny Sexton (quad) and Ben Te'o (concussion) all return, while Sean O’Brien could come off the bench for his 100th cap.

Connacht team:

(15-9) Tiernan O'Halloran, Niyi Adeolokun, Bundee Aki, Craig Ronaldson, Matt Healy, Jack Carty, Kieran Marmion
 
(1-8) Finlay Bealham, Tom McCartney, Nathan White, Aly Muldowney, Andrew Browne, John Muldoon (captain), Jake Heenan, Eoghan Masterson
 
Replacements:

(16-23) Dave Heffernan, Ronan Loughney, Rodney Ah You, Ultan Dillane, Sean O'Brien, Ian Porter, AJ MacGinty, Rory Parata

Leinster team:

(15-9) Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Garry Ringrose, Ben Te'o, Dave Kearney, Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath

(1-8) Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Marty Moore, Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Rhys Ruddock (Captain), Josh van der Flier, Jordi Murphy

Replacements:

(16-23) James Tracy, Peter Dooley, Michael Bent, Ross Molony, Sean O'Brien, Eoin Reddan, Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner