Star-studded Leinster will be too strong for Benetton – but this is a real opportunity for Ciaran Frawley

Ciaran Frawley’s stock continues to soar in the No 10 markets. Leo Cullen’s decision to pick him at out-half before he departs for a fortnight with Emerging Ireland in South Africa suggests that something is afoot.

he Skerries native’s ears must be burning on a daily basis at this stage. His name crops up on every rugby podcast and radio show and echoes through the pub-talk about what happens when Johnny Sexton either retires or gets injured.

His pair of performances against the Maori last summer suggested he may be poised to take a decisive step towards the position of back-up No 10.

Joey Carbery might have something to say about that, but his defensive contributions in New Zealand only undermined faith in the Munster out-half.

At Leinster, he seemed to be behind the Byrne brothers but here he is starting alongside the big hitters, with Ross on the bench and Harry in the stand.

Both will likely get a chance to impress while Frawley is in Bloemfontein with Emerging Ireland, but this is a real opportunity.

Cullen almost always raises a wizened eyebrow when this topic of discussion is raised and he stressed yesterday that Frawley has played at No 10 for Leinster before, but rarely has he been behind such a formidable pack with the first-choice centres, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose, outside him.

It’s set up for him to succeed, perhaps making a point to David Nucifora, Andy Farrell and everyone at the IRFU that Frawley doesn’t need to go to South Africa to get opportunity.

To which, they’d probably point to the fact that this is the second time Frawley (24) has worn the Leinster No 10 shirt since February 2020 – a period when he’s played 33 times for the province.

Caught in the tug of love is a talented, ambitious young player who must be relishing the opportunity.

“He has covered No 10 for us and played at 10 for us a number of times before,” Cullen said.

“With Ross and Harry there as well it is just competitive. They are three relatively young guys but at different stages, Ciaran played a lot initially at 10, moved to 12 and he has been back and forth a bit.

“He had to have that shoulder surgery, played more at 12 than 10 last year but he is back playing 10 this year so it is great to have that versatility.

“The likes of Dan Carter would have done that role as a ten and 12 internationally and at club level. He has had some great games for Leinster already in both positions.

“He is a very good player, Ciaran. He has got potential.”

The Italians come to the RDS on the back of a heartening opening weekend win at home to Glasgow Warriors and, under Marco Bortolami, they look more capable of competing this season.

For their part, Leinster put in a patchy display against Zebre Parma last weekend but the return of so many big hitters should see major improvements.

Although Jamison Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong, James Lowe and the injured Hugo Keenan have yet to return from the squad that toured New Zealand, Cullen can call on 10 players from that squad as well as Jordan Larmour, who is back fit.

Dave Kearney, Luke McGrath, Michael Ala’alatoa and Jason Jenkins survive from last week’s narrow win, with South African Jenkins forming an intriguing partnership with James Ryan in the second row, as Ryan Baird lines out on the blindside of a powerful back-row.

There are few teams in the tournament capable of living with that Leinster starting pack if it hits the high notes, while the presence of Robbie Henshaw and tonight’s captain Garry Ringrose will give Frawley plenty of weapons.

Benetton will be competitive and will aim to make life difficult for the home side in the physical exchanges, but Leinster should be too strong.

If Frawley can hit the high notes then it’ll be a good night all round.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER – J O’Brien; J Larmour, G Ringrose (capt), R Henshaw, D Kearney; C Frawley, L McGrath; A Porter, D Sheehan, M Ala’alatoa; J Ryan, J Jenkins; R Baird, J van der Flier, C Doris. Reps: R Kelleher, E Byrne, C Healy, R Molony, W Connors, C Foley, R Byrne, C Ngatai

BENETTON – I Mendy; M Bellini, J Riera, M Zanon, O Ratave; G Da Re, S Hidalgo-Clyne; I Nemer, G Nicotera, S Ferrari; N Cannone, S Scrafton; G Pettinelli, M Lamaro (capt), T Halafihi. Reps: G Lucchesi, F Zani, F Alongi, C Wegner, H Time-Stowers, M Albanese, T Menoncello, R Tavuyara

Ref – J Peyper (SARU)

Leinster v Benetton, 7.35,

Live TG4/ Premier Sports

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