Battle-hardened Leinster entitled to favouritism
However determined Ulster bound to mount a massive effort at the RDS to seal their final place
Leinster’s Dave Kearney is tackled by Andrew Trimble and Roger Wilson of Ulster during this month’s RaboDirect Pro12 league clash at Ravenhill. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When it comes to passing a verdict on the respective seasons of Leinster and Ulster, this evening’s win-or-bust rendezvous in the RDS will go some way to settling a few arguments. After their Heineken Cup quarter-final exits, the Pro12 offers a last shot at redemption. For one, the campaign will be over, without so much as a final to contest, whereas the other will have a final. Such high stakes ought to ensure a juicy encounter.
Leinster, with five trophies in the last six campaigns, will either fall some way short of last season’s double or help ensure a more fitting farewell for Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen, and a productive start to the Matt O’Connor era.
Ulster, without a trophy for eight seasons, desperately want silverware to reward their discernible progress on and off the field, and send Johann Muller (not to mention John Afoa and Tom Court) off with a winners medals.
O’Connor has made eight changes from last weekend’s unimpressive win against Edinburgh, albeit with the same pack which won in Ravenhill a fortnight ago bar Quinn Roux replacing the injured Mike McCarthy.
Hence, Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore (ahead of Mike Ross), Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock and Shane Jennings are restored, with Sean O’Brien on the bench ahead of Jordi Murphy. Eoin Reddan is restored after recovering from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since the defeat to Toulon.
In his 100th appearance for Leinster, Reddan is liable to quicken up Leinster’s tempo, while Ulster, as anticipated, have been boosted by the return of Ruan Pienaar as well as Rory Best. Pienaar’s return is likely to see Ulster utilise his superb kicking game from hand, as well as Paddy Jackson’s, in one of their classic ‘away’ performances, with the in-form Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble chasing hard. The aerial contests will be pivotal.
Only Craig Gilroy at full-back and Callum Black at loose-head are retained from the side which beat Munster. Jared Payne is at outside-centre, with Darren Cave inside him after his considerable impact off the bench against Leinster a fortnight ago.
Leinster are playing in a fifth successive home semi-final, have won 11 of their last dozen Pro12 matches and are the only league side with an unbeaten home record, their last home defeat coming against Ulster in March last year, which was Ulster’s first win in Dublin over Leinster since 1999.
Going into the weekend, no away side had ever won a semi-final in the previous five seasons of the play-offs.
In the last four seasons, Ulster have won three and lost six. Leinster have played a phenomenal 23 knock-out ties over the last six seasons, and even more remarkably, have won 18 of them.
Against that, Ulster assuredly must learn from past defeats, notably against Leinster, and as Muller has implored, play with fire in their belies but ice in their heads. Venting their emotional energy with discipline may also be more feasible away from Ravenhill, for this is a team which stormed Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup three seasons ago, ended their Dublin and French hoodoos last season, and this season won away to Montpellier and Leicester, semi-finalists again domestically this weekend.
It would thus be no surprise if Ulster upset the odds here.
Yet Leinster’s worldliness, allied to their front-row strength and the continuing absence of Court and Afoa, entitles the home side to favouritism.
They also appear to have much more impact to call upon off the bench, which could be the decisive factor. But it’s liable to be a close-run contest.