Leinster’s strong bench may just tip the balance against Ulster
Zebre’s win over the Ospreys means the northern province require just a point to nail down semi-final berth
Ulster’s Jared Payne, who returns from his ERC two-game suspension against Leinster tonight, makes a break against the Scarlets in an earlier Pro12 game.
Ulster’s hold on a play-off place had looked under threat entering the penultimate round of regular season Pro12 matches but all that changed when Guglielmo Palazzani’s try three minutes into overtime helped secure Zebre a surprising and hugely significant 30-27 win over the Ospreys. From a position where they might have expected to need five points from their final two games at home to Leinster and away to Munster, Ulster now need just a point to nail down a semi-final place.
Zebre’s win also puts them above Treviso on points difference in the battle for the sole Italian place in next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup, and ensures both Munster (and Glasgow) of their places in the Pro12 semi-finals ahead of their penultimate games.
Ulster can thus now turn their attention toward procuring a home semi-final, although this seems unlikely as it would not only require at least two wins but also Glasgow either slipping up tonight in Treviso or at home to Zebre next week.
For their part, a bonus-point win tonight would ensure Leinster of a sixth home semi-final out of six since the introduction of the play-offs, and a win of any hue, coupled with another victory at home to Edinburgh next Saturday would see them secure top seeding in the play-offs for the fourth time in six years and with it the carrot of home advantage in the final.
Aside from all the permutations, the game is a sell-out Irish derby to be televised live on both RTÉ and BBC, and fittingly for such a meaningful encounter, two strong selections ensures a plethora of contenders for the forthcoming tour to Argentina on display in front of the watching Joe Schmidt, not to mention a match that will mark the official opening of Ravenhill. So, not much at stake then.
Leinster will have the bulk of the Argentine aspirants, while the game also marks, most probably, a Ravenhill farewell for Johann Muller, Tom Court, Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen, curiously a sometime pantomime villain hereabouts.
Jared Payne returns from his ERC two-game suspension (the appeal would have been after the suspension was completed, which rendered appealing effectively pointless) and perhaps significantly, Mark Anscombe pits the bookies’ favourite to ultimately succeed O’Driscoll as the Irish number 13 when he qualifies next season opposite the great man at openside.
The pity for Ulster is in addition to Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Ruan Pienaar also being ruled out, John Afoa is not fit enough to bid farewell to Ravenhill, and with Declan Fitzpatrick and Ricky Lutton also hors de combat, Anscombe has opted to give 24-year-old Academy loosehead Andrew Warwick his second league start and his first at tighthead. A classmate and fellow product of Ballymena Acadamy along with Luke Marshall and Ricky Lutton, Warwick will merely be going up against a Lions’ loosehead Cian Healy. Roger Wilson returns to the backrow while Dan Tuohy returns to the bench with Iain Henderson continuing to partner Muller.
Matt O’Connor has selected a potent Leinster line-up featuring a dozen players who contributed to Ireland’s Six Nations title, with another three on a strong bench. Compared to the side which ran in nine tries in their 62-7 win over Treviso, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney, Ian Madigan (preferred to Jimmy Goperth) and Shane Jennings all return.
Ulster’s only two victories over Leinster in their last 11 encounters in all tournaments came in both regular season Pro12 fixtures in 2012/13, which Leinster avenged in the Grand Final. Leinster have lost only two of their nine most recent visits to Ravenhill, and have not lost back-to-back matches at Ulster’s citadel since 1992.
Leinster take the better league form into the game as well, having won nine of their 10 – the exception being the defeat away to the Ospreys two weeks ago which came just five nights after they bowed out of the Heineken Cup at the quarter-final stage in Toulon.
Against that, Ulster can take comfort from their form at Ravenhill, where they have won nine league matches in a row since losing their first home game 13-12 to Glasgow, when Anscombe’s team blew a host of try-scoring opportunities in a game they dominated before being sucker-punched by a James Eddie try with the last play of the game before Stuart Hogg tapped over the conversion. But for that, Ulster would now be two points ahead of Glasgow in third and fourth place.
At full strength Ulster would probably have started favourites, and while the bookies now make it a scratch game, the odds ought perhaps favour Leinster, all the more so given the apparent strength of the two benches as well.