Leinster’s 26-10 defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill has all but eneded their hopes of a Pro 12 play-off spot. Photograph: Inpho

Province can still mathematically reach Pro 12 play-offs but top four spot is improbable

Craig Gilroy dives over for Ulsters second score in their 26-10 win over Leinster at Ravenhill. Photograph: Inpho

Matt O’Connor’s side fail to build on lightning start as hosts fight back at a soggy Ravenhill

“You could say this is our toughest game of the season,” said Connacht coach Pat Lam. “It’s up to us to go out and perform as a team.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Lam’s team badly in need of points as they host Pro12 League leaders Glasgow

Donnacha Ryan making his first Munster start since March 2014. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Southerners well placed to secure lucrative and advantageous home semi-final

Leinster outhalf Jimmy Gopperth is a picture of dejection at the final whistle against Toulon. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Out of 13 Irish-French semi-finals, 10 have taken place in France

A  number of Top 14 clubs are monitoring Paul O’Connell’s situation. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

French club see Munster and Ireland secondrow as iconic figure in European rugby

Toulon’s Ali Williams pleads his innocence after being sin-binned during the Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster in Marseille. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho.

Jordi Murphy says defeat will be a spur to him for the remainder of his career

Toulon’s Bryan Habana scores the extra-time try. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Taut, titanic struggle ends in rain-sodden Stade Vélodrome

Seán Cronin and Rob Kearney raise their arms in truumph as Leinster overcome Clermont 19-15 in the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2012. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Reggie Corrigan believes province need a display akin to Clermont in 2012

Mathieu Bastareaud of Toulon runs with the ball against Leinster during the European Cup quarter-final match at Felix Mayol Stadium last year. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images.

Everything will have to go Leinster’s way if they are to overcome reigning champions

Jamie Heaslip of Leinster is tackled by Florian Fresia and Michael Classens of Toulon in last year’s European Cup quarter-final at Stade Mayol. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Coach Matt O’Connor insists future a secondary concern ahead of challenge

Leinster outhalf Jimmy Gopperth in possession during the Pro12 game against Dragons at Rodney Parade last weekend.  Photograph: Ian Cook/Inpho.

Leinster outhalf knows he and team-mates will have to be at very best to quell reigning champions

Forwards coach Leo Cullen at Leinster squad training. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Province overcame odds to defeat rivals Munster before claiming first Heineken

Leinster hooker Seán Cronin on Toulon semi-final: “It probably is going to take one of our best games in a few seasons to get a win.” Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Hooker admits season is in the balance but Matt O’Connor’s side back themselves

Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor gambled on resting 12 of the starting line-up against Bath for the trip to the Dragons. Photograph: Ian Cook

Inability to put teams away when on top has been a hallmark of their season

Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor at Rodney Parade where his side were beaten by Newport Gwent Dragons. Photograph: Ian Cook/Inpho

Matt O’Connor’s side lose to Dragons at Rodney Parade after being 22-8 ahead

Matt Healy lost confidence after being released by Leinster but is now joint top try scorer for Connacht. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Connacht winger has resurrected career and now eyes place in Champions Cup

Leinster scrumhalf Eoin Reddan will hope to force himself into starting XV for Champions Cup semi-final against Toulon. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Matt O’Connor side looking to avenge shock February loss at RDS

Centre Bundee Aki returns to the Connacht side for the game against Ulster. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Pat Lam’s team have lost only once at home but defeat could mean dropping out of top six

Isa Nacewa: scores a try against Biarritz in the  Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final. In total, he scored 24 tries for Leinster in his first stint with the province. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Former crowd favourite steps out of retirement to resume his playing career

Racing-Metro’s  Jonny Sexton:  had been replaced when his team-mates decided to riskily run down the clock with pick-and-jam tactic within range of their posts. Photo: Franck Fife/AFP/INpho

Bath and Racing Metro both left to rue their ill-discipline and missed opportunities

Leinster’s Rob Kearney is challenged in the air by Bath’s Anthony Watson during their European Champions Cup quarter-final at Aviva Stadium, Dublin. Watson was sin binned for the tackle. Photograph: Colm O’Neill/Inpho

Ian Madigan’s accuracy won’t be enough to survive daunting semi-final in France

Bath’s Stuart Hooper tries to get to grips with Cian Healy during the Champions Cup quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Ian Madigan penalties prove decisive but home side rarely looked like scoring try

Rob Kearney is aware of the task facing Leinster. “Bath are a quality side. What they did to Toulouse was the performance of the season in the European Cup,” he says. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leinster fullback says team are good enough to win the Champions Cup despite struggles

Jamie Heaslip during Leinster’s captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Champions Cup quarter-final clash at Aviva has all the ingredients of an epic

Delon Armitage returns at fullback for Toulon against Wasps as they look to respond to a surprise Top 14 defeat at home to Toulouse. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Champions should secure eighth successive knock-out win in the European Cup

Jordi Murphy training with Leinster. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Leinster flanker says team can’t afford to make defensive mistakes against English side

Bath coach Mike Ford encourages his side to have a go from anywhere on the field, an approach that brought them a bonus-point victory in Toulouse in the pool stage. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The English side are a different beast to when they lost by 25 points in Dublin in 2012

Ian Madigan with Leinster coach Matt O’Connor before the draw with Glasgow at the RDS last Friday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Fellow outhalf soothed substitute’s fears after late missed penalty

Minister may cite 'cultural significance’ to add home matches to the list

Rhys Ruddock suffered injury against Harlequins in the Champions Cup. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Leinster flanker needs another operation on injury he suffered in December

 Try scorer Sean O’Brien brought badly needed ballast in the ball-carrying. Photograph: Reuters

Saturday was a one-off. Come the big games, it will be business as usual

Ireland players line up for the anthems ahead of the Six Nations international rugby union match between Scotland and Ireland - Six have been selected for our Six Nations team of the tournament. Photograph: Ian  MacNicol/Getty Images

Six Irish make team of tournament joined by players from France, England and Wales

Paul O’Connell makes a flying tackle on Scotland’s Stuart Hogg. It almost goes without saying that the captain was immense leading from the front in his inimitable. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Backline benefit from change in mindset as Seán O’Brien returns to his best

Flanker Seán O’Brien’s outstretched arm proves just about long enough to score Ireland’s crucial fourth try against Scotland. Photograph: Lee smith/Reuters.

Joe Schmidt’s side retain title for Ireland in breathtaking climax to championship

Johnny Sexton should have a big game against Scotland after the disappointment in Cardiff. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland should improve but Twickenham may be key advantage in three-way tussle

From left: Denis Leamy, Ronan O’Gara, David Wallace, Simon Easterby, Gordon D’Arcy, Girvan Dempsey, Denis Hickie and Shane Horgan on St Patrick’s Day 2007 as Ireland took on Italy in Stadio Olimpico. Photograph: INPHO/Dan Sheridan

How Ireland learnt that preventing the concession of a seven-pointer is as important as scoring one

Ireland squad in training at Carton House. Joe Schmidt has decided to “freshen” up the team for Scotland with Simon Zebo missing out. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Ireland coach not trying to anticipate England outcome and expects ‘real challenge’

Cian Healy: set to win first start of this season’s Six Nation’s in Saturday’s meeting with Scotland at Murrayfield. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Joe Schmidt expected to retain Devin Toner in Irish lineout set to combat Scotland

Eoin Reddan puts in a box kick against Wales.  The scrumhalf says the only focus this week is beating Scotland. Photograph:  Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Scrumhalf won’t consider a Six Nations title until Ireland take care of business at hand

Ireland’s Cian Healy is tackled by Aaron Jarvis of Wales at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Greg Feek has been stressing that Cian Healy has been “chomping at the bit”. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Optional changes could see Luke Fitzgerald and Cian Healy come in to the starting XV

Sex appeal: Ireland outhalf Johnny Sexton leads a team talk in the huddle during last week’s crunch game against Wales. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Holy Grail of Grand Slam slips from grasp but focus turns to title for regrouped squad

Referee Wayne Barnes awards a penalty to Wales during the final moments of the game at the Millennium Stadium. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Joe Schmidt puzzled as to how dominant Irish scrum was penalised three times

 Simon Zebo upended in the tackle.  Wales racing into a 12-0 lead threw a spanner in the works of this well-oiled Irish machine. Photograph:   Michael Steele/Getty Images

Team betrayed hints of panic as they were forced to chase the game

Ireland’s Devin Toner, Sean O’Brien and Paul O’Connell react to referee Wayne Barnes’s decision. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Defeat to impressive Wales places old-enemy England in driving seat for Six Nations title

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt puts his side through their paces during the Captain’s Run at the Millennium Stadium ahead of the Six Nations clash with Wales on Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Wales have not lost two home games in the same Six Nations campaign since 2003

Simon Easterby: “Why can’t this be the period when Ireland win back-to-back championships.” Photograph: Russell Pritchard/Inpho/Presseye

The former international is playing a big role again for Ireland as forwards coach

Paul O’Connell: Victory over Wales at Millennium Stadium would set a new Ireland record of 11 wins in a row. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Ireland captain hopes to celebrate 100th cap with a win against Wales

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt at a press conference ahead of the Six Nations game against Wales in Cardiff.

Ireland coach gives special praise to Munster man about to win 100th cap

Heaslip, typically, has made a remarkable and swifter than forecast recovery from the three cracked vertabrae he suffered courtesy of Pascal Papé’s knee.

Schmidt has started just 18 players so far with stand-in O’Donnell to drop out again

Johnny Sexton, Ian Keatley and Ian Madigan have been excellent from the kicking tee, missing just one kick between them in this year’s Six Nations. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Outhalf’s ‘direction and leadership on the pitch is massive’, says Richie Murphy

DUBLIN, IRELAND - MARCH 01:  Conor Murray of Ireland clears the ball upfield under pressure from George Kruis of England during the RBS Six Nations match between Ireland and England at the Aviva Stadium on March 1, 2015 in Dublin, Ireland.  (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Ireland have never made the last four, their style is under scrutiny – but they just keep on winning

“He’s smart, he’s got a good way about him, but he doesn’t accept people letting their team-mates down,” says Jono Gibbes, who was forwards’ coach for Joe Schmidt for three years at Leinster. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The New Zealander has his team working harder than opponents and there is no hiding place for players

Though Jared Payne is more familiar with the fullback position he is happy to play at centre for Ireland. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.

Versatility a key commodity for New Zealand-born convert

Seán O’Brien meets some happy fans at the Ireland rugby squad’s open training session in Belfast. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Injury victims Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien and Jared Payne all take part in Belfast work-out

Ireland’s win takes on greater significance given the World Cup context. A defeat would have been their fifth in a row against England, who are potential semi-final opponents. Photograph: Inpho

Victory over old foe eighth in a row at home venue for rapidly improving Ireland outfit

Paul O’Connell takes a lineout during Ireland’s win over England. The match clock appeared to stop accidentally after Ireland’s try. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

More than two extra minutes may have been played by the TMO at the Aviva Stadium

Ireland captain Paul O’Connell, playing his 99th international,  blocks down Ben Youngs of England. Photo: Inpho/Dan Sheridan

Joe Schmidt’s side show superiority with a ferocious display for 10th straight win

Robbie Henshaw beats Alex Goode to the ball and crowns a man-of-the-match performance with Ireland’s and the game’s only try at the Aviva yesterday: Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Robbie Henshaw has immense game with try to crown man-of-the-match performance

On your marks: Paul O’Connell will captain Ireland in their decisive tie against England in the Six Nations. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Gerry Thornley says visitors will be more creative but home advantage favours Ireland

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt says he expects support against England to be close to level of New Zealand match in 2013. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Ireland coach played down talk of one-dimensionsal gameplan

Putting it on the line: Ireland’s Keith Wood powers over for a  try against England in their 2001 Six Nations match. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Six Nations clashes with the ‘auld enemy’ are always epic battles where winner takes all

 Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt talks to his team before the Six Nations game against France. The only change to the side that won that game is  because of injury. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Irish changes set to be minimal while Jack Nowell and Alex Goode to come into England back three

Ireland hooker Rory Best at lineout training ahead of Sunday’s match against England at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Cian Healy ‘in great shape’ and pushing for starting spot ahead of forwards showdown

Peter O’Mahony: the forward is yet to taste success aginst England at senior level.  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Flanker is unconcerned about a perceived lack of entertainment on the pitch

 Jordi Murphy replaced Jamie Heaslip as number eight in Ireland’s first Six Nations game of the year against Italy. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leinster forward to remain in camp with Jordi Murphy likely to step in against England

The opening wins away to Wales and at home to Italy have heightened belief among England fans that, as in 2003, this year’s championship will serve as another Grand Slam en route to the World Cup.

Irish clubs cash in to facilitate up to 15,000 supporters travelling in buoyant mood

Rhapsody in blue: Brian O’Driscoll was often the prime exponent of offloads in Schmidt’s teams. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Try-scoring troubles show the difference between club and Test level

Referee Wayne Barnes shows Pascal Papé a yellow card for kneeing Jamie Heaslip at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Independent committee believe assault on Heaslip should have merited a red card

Referee Wayne Barnes shows Pascal Papé a yellow card for kneeing Jamie Heaslip at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Independent committee believe assault on Heaslip should have merited a red card

Jamie Heaslip is out of the England encounter with broken vertebrae. Photograph:  Michael Steele/Getty Images

Les Kiss is looking for improvement on Ireland’s ‘pass mark’ in defence against France

Robbie Henshaw in action during Ireland’s open training session with Connacht at the Sportsground  in Galway. Photo: Bily Stickland/Inpho

Ireland star enjoys pitting his wits against his Connacht team-mates back on familiar soil

The clash that led to Johnny Sexton and Mathieu Bastareaud ending up in the blood bin at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho.

Ireland's 18-11 win over France typified a game more brutal than beautiful

Ireland’s wing Simon Zebo (C) holds the ball during the Six Nations international rugby union match between Ireland and France at Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Coach criticises prematch talk as Sexton shows his innate class

RBS 6 Nations Championship, Aviva Stadium, Dublin 14/2/2015Ireland vs France Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Joe Schmidt’s fingerprints all over performance as his side keep France at bay

Ireland assistant coach Les Kiss has been in here for seven years and will extend his stay when he becomes director of rugby at Ulster after the World Cup in November. photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Australian is consumed by game and says no team challenges defensive skills more than French

Ireland Rugby Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Mind games from French lead IRFU to release statement defending selection

Jonathan Sexton has been limited to just seven games for Racing Metro this season after breaking his jaw and suffering concussion. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Heaslip, O’Brien and Sexton back in side but Schmidt admits French ability worries him

Test-winning Lion Sean O’Brien limbers up during a squad training session at Carton House in Co Kildare ahead of the game against France. Photograph: PA

Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Johnny Sexton all expected to start at the Aviva

Mathieu Bastareaud is a go-to man for France and Johnny Sexton should expect to see a lot of him on Saturday. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

France coach says Ireland are favourites but expects ‘another tight one’

Ireland’s Simon Zebo in action against Italy in the  Six Nations in Rome. Photograph: Max Rossi/Reuters

Ireland winger with French blood is relishing his first clash with Les Bleus

Jonathan Sexton enjoys very close relationship with Ireland coach Joe Schmidt. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Ireland will look to outhalf for inspiration as they aim for first win at Aviva over France

It is believed the French are considering promoting Morgan Parra at scrumhalf to start against Ireland at The Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Getty Images.

Les Bleus may be underachieving but they do have a gameplan to stymie at the Aviva

Ireland’s Paul O’Connell makes a spectacular catch in the lineout ahead of Italy lock George Biagi. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Joe Schmidt’s side do enough and little bit more as sterner tests loom on the horizon

Seán O’Brien: may find out today if the hamstring injury which sidelined him on Saturday will keep him out of the match against France. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Victory a sound platform as Ireland’s main men aim to return for France game

Robbie Henshaw says it was a great feeling to get the win, even sitting in the stands, in last year’s Six Nations, but “it’s a new challenge this year”.  Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Multitalented centre is looking forward to Six Nations debut and ‘creating some history’

Ireland outhalf Ian Keatley practices his set-pieces at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome on the eve of the Six Nations encounter with Italy. Much will depend on his kicking in the clash against the Azzurri. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.

Reigning champions are in form but depleted as they face tough task in Rome

Ian Keatley, James Cronin, Robbie Henshaw, Tommy O’Donnell and Jared Payne training at Carton House, Co Kildare. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Ireland coach says outlhalf has all-round game to lead unfamiliar Irish backline

Johnny Sexton talks Racing Métro, ‘Charlie Hebdo’, fatherhood, goal-kicking and going to the Louvre to “spend 40 quid on two coffees”. Photograph: INPHO/James Crombie

Ireland number 10 looks ahead to the Six Nations, World Cup and a return to Leinster

Leinster’s Jordi Murphy  is in line to start at number eight for Ireland against Italy. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Championship game appears to have come too early for a return for Jamie Heaslip

Paul O’Connell poses with the new Six Nations trophy alongside fellow captains Thierry Dusautoir of France, Chris Robshaw of England, Sergio Parisse of Italy, Sam Warburton of Wales and Greig Laidlaw of Scotland. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

The grand old tournament should be full of its usual twists and turns. Gerry Thornley sets the scene

 Peter O’Mahony battling in his last match at the Stadio Olimpico, a time he calls a “dark old spot”.    Photograph: James Crombie/INPHO

Flanker ended up on the wing in Ireland’s Six Nations defeat on their last visit to Italy

 Jamie Heaslip remains a doubt with a shoulder injury. He has not finished any of his last three Leinster matches. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Flanker’s experience may be necessary with Jordi Murphy in line to replace number eight

The Azzurri stand for the Italian national anthem. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

Search for the right balance and an improvement in offensive efficiency a must for Italy

Martin Moore during last year’s Six Nations game against Scotland. Photograph:   Billy Stickland/Inpho

Moore’s ambition now is to make the international number three jersey his own

 Jamie Heaslip leads his Leinster team onto the field before their Champions Cup match against Wasps at the Ricoh Arena. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Money pouring into Anglo-French rugby bodes ill for aspirations of Celtic sides in future

Leinster might be able to obtain a licence to sell alcohol inside the Aviva Stadium for a Good Friday quarter-final, but there would still be a huge loss economically to the local area. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho.

Province requests tea-time Saturday slot for crunch meeting with rivals Bath

Andy Goode of Wasps misses a drop goal in the last minute  to win the game. Photograph:  Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Missed opportunities and loss of tempo in second half almost costs them against Wasps

Wasp’s Andy Goode reacts after missing a late drop goal attempt against Leinster at the Ricoh Arena. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Home quarter-final against Bath the reward after draw against Wasps

Luke Fitzgerald: “I’m happy with where I’m at. I’m happy, I think I’m playing well.”  Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho.

Long-term injury problems behind him as he finds run of form

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