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

Declan Fitzpatrick will prove a formidable presence in the Ulster front row for tonight’s clash with Leinster. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Pressey/Inpho

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 01:03


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
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.

Mike Ross has already played 12 games this campaign. Granted, he hasn’t finished any of them because Marty Moore has found a groove but the coach didn’t feel the need to change his frontrow.

“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.

But will it matter? Can they earn enough possession to ask Paddy Jackson and Luke Marshall to keep them ahead of Leinster in the Pro 12 table. There is a mere point between them.

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.
Verdict: Leinster.

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Rabo Pro 12

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Leinster 19 14 1 4 455 312 11 69
Ulster 19 14 0 5 422 253 9 65
Munster 19 14 0 5 434 285 7 63
Glasgow 18 14 0 4 328 250 4 60
Ospreys 19 11 1 7 479 328 10 56
Scarlets 19 9 1 9 361 383 7 45
Edinburgh 18 7 0 11 325 393 7 35
Connacht 19 6 0 13 313 410 10 34
Cardiff 19 6 1 12 371 483 7 33
Dragons 19 6 1 12 339 419 5 31
Treviso 19 5 1 13 334 471 7 29
Zebre 19 3 2 14 291 465 5 21

Pool One

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Leinster 6 5 0 1 152 66 2 22
Northampton 6 4 0 2 107 104 1 17
Castres 6 2 0 4 78 104 1 9
Ospreys 6 1 0 5 75 138 1 5

Pool Two

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Toulon 6 5 0 1 170 104 4 24
Cardiff 6 3 0 3 119 148 2 14
Exeter 6 2 0 4 118 123 4 12
Glasgow 6 2 0 4 98 130 3 11

Pool Three

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Toulouse 6 5 0 1 143 63 3 23
Saracens 6 4 0 2 217 74 4 20
Connacht 6 3 0 3 101 147 1 13
Zebre 6 0 0 6 33 210 0 0

Pool Four

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Clermont 6 5 0 1 139 69 4 24
Harlequins 6 3 0 3 126 103 4 16
Scarlets 6 2 1 3 122 150 1 11
Racing Metro 6 1 1 4 66 131 1 7

Pool Five

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Ulster 6 6 0 0 179 62 2 26
Leicester 6 4 0 2 159 112 5 21
Montpellier 6 2 0 4 121 124 3 11
Treviso 6 0 0 6 41 202 0 0

Pool Six

Team P W D L F A BP Pts
Munster 6 5 0 1 161 77 3 23
Gloucester 6 3 0 3 113 114 2 14
Edinburgh 6 3 0 3 104 141 0 12
Perpignan 6 1 0 5 112 158 3 7