Sean O’Brien’s return likely to help Leinster past Ulster
Visitors look too depleted to engineer a victory at the RDS
Declan Fitzpatrick will prove a formidable presence in the Ulster front row for tonight’s clash with Leinster. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Pressey/Inpho
Leinster losing three in games in succession is hard to imagine. They may be blessed by the lack of artillery in the Red Hand brigade, seeking to avenge last May’s Pro 12 final at what tonight will be a significantly colder Royal Dublin Society.
Ulster just seem way too depleted. For starters Johann Muller is resting. Ruan Pienaar benched. Tommy Bowe, Chris Henry, Stuart Olding and Rory Best are laid up after surgery. Nick Williams’ girth and manic mauling is always missed.
Leinster are also without several names but the return of Seán O’Brien is like that of two warriors. So too is the direction offered by Leo Cullen in possibly his last duel with Ulster.
There should also be a desperation about how Leinster go about their business. A fear even. Three defeats in a row and handed to them by their northern rivals in their own back garden, well, that would be a lot to stomach. Even at this time of year.
The reversal by Northampton at the Aviva stadium will have scarred the franchise, especially how it all ended, but the stumble in Edinburgh hasn’t fractured spirit. Not Matt O’Connor’s anyway.
“It was a brand new tight five in really tough conditions,” said the Australian of Murrayfield’s swamp that ended in a 11-6 defeat after Dominic Ryan’s fumble with the try line a rumble away.
“I haven’t seen many professional rugby pitches in such a poor state so that made it very, very hard. Especially for the tight five guys who were a little under done.
“They had the luxury of coming off the intensity of a Heineken Cup win against Gloucester and picked a similar enough team whereas we made 12 changes, which makes it hard.
“We were disappointed with the performance but in saying that we had opportunities in the last play to win the game.”
That they have lost two matches in succession because of backrowers dropping the ball on the cusp of glory must rankle more so than with most other teams because they have won so many battles by doing the opposite . Anyway, O’Connor’s not the panicky type.
“They will be significantly better for the hit out against Edinburgh. It is hard on guys who don’t get a run of games to come in and be expected to be very good and are judged on a pretty high level of standard.”
Still, they look like a weak point. That said, Ulster’s primary props are not on show. John Afoa is away down in New Zealand while Tom Court is benched. Both of them are off to English clubs in the summer so maybe Mark Anscombe is giving the next wave their head.
It would be great to see Deccie Fitzpatrick reward his coach by not getting injured. If not for Aaron Cruden his power plays last month would already Irish sporting folklore.
It was also pointed out yesterday that Anscombe, like O’Connor did for the thrashing of Northampton just three weeks ago at Franklin’s Gardens (remember that?), has selected an Irish-qualified XV.
Music to the ears of Eddie Wigglesworth and his unfurling succession strategy.
The suspicion is no. Not in the face of a backrow containing O’Brien, the rampaging Jordi Murphy and destructive Rhys Ruddock. And not with Luke Fitzgerald and Zane Kirchner intent on recreating the magic of almost every interaction they have had. Leinster should have too much in store.
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Macken, N Reid, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; M Bent, A Dundon, M Moore; L Cullen (capt), M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Murphy. Replacements: J Tracy, M Ross, J O’Connell, T Denton, D Ryan, L McGrath, I Madigan, D Fanning.
ULSTER: R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack (capt), S Doyle, R Wilson. Replacements: N Annett, T Court, R Lutton, N McComb, M McComish, R Pienaar, J Payne, M Allen.
Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).
Previous meetings – May 25th, 2013: Leinster 24-18 Ulster; March 30th, 2013: Leinster 18-22 Ulster; December 21, 2012: Leinster 19-27 Ulster
Betting: Leinster (-5) 10/11. Ulster (+5) 10/11.