Leinster eager to get back to winning ways in Pro12 against Ulster

Shane Jennings claims that a victory is vital for their play-off hopes after loss to Munster

At the midway point in the Guinness Pro12, the first half of the festive derbies finds reigning champions Leinster outside the top four play-off positions before hosting fourth-placed Ulster on Saturday, while Munster travel to sixth-placed Connacht on Thursday as the leading Irish province and within touching distance of the Ospreys and Glasgow.

The bad news for Connacht is that Munster arrive on New Year's day buoyed by the 28-13 win over Leinster on St Stephen's Day and likely to restore Paul O'Connell, Dave Foley, Peter O'Mahony, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo.

"Hopefully we'll have a few back," said Anthony Foley. "We'll see how fellas are and we'll hopefully have three or more fellas back in, while a lot of lads have put up their hands. There was a physical output on Friday and a lot of sore bodies the next day, so we have to make sure that we get 23 fit bodies up against Connacht because Connacht, as everybody has seen, are a very tough side to beat in Galway."

Connacht are unbeaten at the Sportsground this season, although Pat Lam does not have the same squad depth as Foley enjoys for a game that takes place only five days after their 13-10 defeat away to Ulster. Foley's one injury concern arising from the Leinster game is number eight Robin Copeland. "His arm is in a sling and it would be hard to see him in Connacht."


Cut lip

The Munster coach was unconcerned about the cut lip Tommy O’Donnell sustained which required stitching, while Felix Jones’ shoulder injury “doesn’t look that serious”.

For all the relative doom and gloom surrounding Leinster, it is worth pointing out that they have only one win less than at the same point last season before going on to become champions. “It is a long season and we have got a home game against Ulster next week. We are obviously fifth with three points the difference between us and that top four spot,” said Shane Jennings. “I am very confident that we are going to be there or thereabouts. It was an opportunity missed [against Munster] to gain a bit of a foothold in that top four.”

They can also take some comfort from their form in the RDS, where they have won six from six. Even so, the surprisingly supine nature of Leinster’s defeat in Thomond Park alarmed coaching staff, players and supporters alike, with Jennings – captain in Thomond Park – echoing the view of coach Matt O’Connor that they had let themselves down.

“I certainly don’t feel like I can comment on behalf of the team because I didn’t put my part of the bargain forward. I missed two tackles that led to scores and that’s not good enough. It is not an enjoyable Christmas, I’m pretty grumpy and there are a few guys who feel like that.

“I don’t think we performed, I don’t think we were let. I think if you asked the Munster guys they probably didn’t feel that they worked too hard for their scores. And that is not taking anything away from them, they deserved their win.”

That Leinster suffered their first double defeat to their biggest rivals in the same campaign since 2009 made it particularly hurtful for Jennings.

Always a barometer

“It is always a barometer. Each season when I play Munster is how I would judge the season and they have got two on us this year, and who knows if we will play each other in a play-off again. We may well see each other again but that is not in our control at the moment.”

The Ulster game almost has the look of a must-win if they are not to fall six or seven points outside the play-offs. “Ulster are a bloody good team and they are going to be tough,” said Jennings. “It is not a game we can lose because if we fall down again, that is going to be another few points of the top four.”

Meanwhile, the derby left an abiding impression on Pat Howard, Munster's short-term loan signing from Western Province. "Each fan is shouting 100 times more than any South African fan would be," he said. "The atmosphere is amazing, they are a lot more into their rugby, they are a great crowd there."

Despite his desire to extend his time with Munster to beyond three months, Howard confirmed that is unlikely to be the case. “Unfortunately, that is not my choice. I have a loan deal which ends on February 12th and the province [Western Province] have asked that I come back for that.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times