Schmidt rings the changes for Leinster
RUGBY:In recent years, what with the demands of the Heineken Cup either side of the festive period as well as the player welfare programme and an Irish camp, the Christmas derbies have tended to be like the French Top 14 in microcosm. The provinces target their home games and take a more laissez faire attitude to the away fixtures.
However, this could be different. For starters, Leinster’s selection would seem to hint at an increased prioritising of the league given their continuing presence in the Heineken Cup beyond the pool stages has been seriously imperilled after the defeats to Clermont. Although third, Leinster are a dozen points adrift of Ulster, and the league would be a considerable consolation prize after three successive defeats in finals.
Hence, although Joe Schmidt has made seven changes in personnel, and four positional switches, it is still a strong selection. With the player welfare programme presumably limiting many of the Irish front-liners to one of the Irish derbies over the festive period, Jonny Sexton and Mike Ross have been rested, while Isa Nacewa and Shane Jennings have been ruled out as well as Richardt Strauss after those Clermont bruisers.
Yet recalls for Cian Healy, Devin Toner and Kevin McLaughlin up front hardly weaken the side, while Seán Cronin, Leo Cullen, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Eoin Reddan, Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden are all retained in a side in which all 15 starters are Irish qualified (as are all but two of the bench).
Ian Madigan reverts to out-half, D’Arcy to inside centre, O’Brien to openside and McFadden switches wings, while interestingly Michael Bent is granted a rare start, Brendan Macken and Andrew Conway are recalled to the three-quarter line and Noel Reid starts at fullback.
In essence, Leinster have opted for a particularly strong pack containing eight Irish internationals along with a comparatively callow backline given the injury ravages which have befallen them there. There is still no sign of a seasonal re-appearance for either Luke Fitzgerald or Eoin O’Malley nor, more surprisingly, Dave Kearney.
In need of a pick-me-up after their first defeat of the season and compelled to put on a big performance in front of an 11,200 capacity, unsurprisingly Ulster keep changes to a minimum. In addition to Craig Gilroy replacing the injured Tommy Bowe, with Andrew Trimble switching flanks, Luke Marshall starts with Paddy Wallace on the bench.
Up front, Dan Tuohy suffered a torn calf muscle against Northampton and his place is taken by Neil McComb, while Nick Williams moves from blindside flanker to number eight with Roger Wilson dropping to the bench, with Robbie Diack starting at blindside. An interesting inclusion on the bench is Alan O’Connor, who could make his first appearance for Ulster.
The 20-year-old joined the Ulster Academy, after playing his club rugby with Skerries and UCD, before being part of the Leinster sub-academy. Similarly, 18-year-old winger Adam Byrne, a product of CBS Naas, is in line for his Leinster debut off the bench.
All in all, Ulster should have all the motivation in the world and this would be a win they would cherish above all others.