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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 26th December 2009, 17:30

Television: Live Setanta Ireland

Leinster return to the Magners League after a very successful two weeks in the Heineken Cup. Two wins and 10 points was exactly what was needed to bring Leinster's campaign back to life and they achieved them with some style. It must be said, it felt like the old days seeing Leinster running in a hatful of tries again. Some might say that the Scarlets' defence was weak, but in recent times Leinster have played worse teams than them but failed to score tries.

After scoring only thirteen tries in their first ten games of the season, Leinster scored eleven in two games against Llanelli. It wasn't just the tries either; it was the attitude Leinster showed in looking to attack first. When they kicked, they kicked intelligently for territory but the aimless punts down the middle were mercifully absent. It was a display that called to mind Leinster's performances when Michael Cheika first arrived at the province.

Cheika initially came with David Knox in tow and though Cheika was the head coach, Knox was better known in the game. The team played very much in Knox's image and it was attack, attack, attack! The team could certainly dazzle, such as in the brilliant away displays in Bath and Toulouse. However when the ball wasn't sticking to hand or the weather was lousy and they needed to dog out a win, the team came up short. By the end of his second season in charge Cheika had seen his team fold meekly to Wasps and Cardiff and he realised that things had to change.

In came Kurt McQuilkin to fix the defence and back came Leo Cullen and Shane Jennings from Leicester. They brought with them some of that club's famously uncompromising attitude. The change in attitude didn't take quick enough to save the Heineken Cup campaign but Leinster learned to grind out wins, especially on the road, and it was enough to earn them a Magners League title. Knox departed with some bitter words about the quality of the rugby, but Leinster had found the "dog" they needed.

Last season McQuilkin's work bore fruit and he helped create the meanest defence in Europe. The attack flickered to life now and again, most notably in the semi-final against Munster, but the cup was won on the back of gutsy defensive displays like the Harlequins quarter-final. No one was complaining in the bask of the glory but the niggling question remained. We now had the dog in spades, but had we lost too much of the dazzle?

The most successful teams in professional rugby, like Canterbury, Toulouse, Leicester and Wasps all had the ability to win both ways. They could front up and grind out a tight win when necessary but they could also run in the tries when the opportunity was there. Cheika knows that to really create a winning dynasty, his team needs to be able to do the same. The last two weeks showed the first signs of the complete "total-rugby" game coming together, five months from the end of his tenure. Whatever happens in that time, Cheika's reign will be judged a huge success, but he looks like he could be leaving his replacement a hell of a team.

Cheika will want to see more evidence of this progression in the RDS on St. Stephens Day against an Ulster side looking to do the double over Leinster. Ulster have rested three Ireland internationals in Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace and Tom Court. However they can still name a team that features most of the starting side that was victorious up in Belfast.

Since that win, Ulster have had their ups and downs. Losing at home to Glasgow was a big disappointment but they followed that up with their best performance in years when they beat Stade Francais. Unfortunately they couldn't follow that up last week, although admittedly they weren't helped by chaotic travel arrangements. They're not out of Europe yet though but they're up against it.

For Leinster, there are only two changes from the side that ran in seven tries last week, both in the pack.  Stan Wright, himself just back from injury, replaces the injured van der Linde in the front row.  In the second row, Malcolm O'Kelly comes in for Nathan Hines.  Outside the front five, there are no changes, with Berne once again partnering Reddan in the half-backs, young tyros McLaughlin and O'Brien partnering Heaslip in a powerful back row.

The back line is unchanged, with D'Arcy and O'Driscoll at first and second centre.  Horgan and Nacewa retain their places on the wings, after both showing very good form of late.  Rob Kearney, who had a very strange first half last week, dropping a number of high balls, overrunning a few times and also scoring two of Leinsters three tries in that half retains his starting place at full back.

Leinster will be looking to keep their momentum going and should have too much for Ulster. A win would nicely round off what has been a fantastic year for Leinster rugby.

Merry Christmas and here's to an even better New Year for Leinster!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Ulster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney 15 Jamie Smith
Shane Horgan
14 Timoci Nagusa
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Darren Cave
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Ian Whitten
Isa Nacewa 11 Simon Danelli
Shaun Berne 10 Niall O'Connor
Eoin Reddan
9 Isaac Boss

Cian Healy
1 Bryan Young
John Fogarty 2 Nigel Brady
Sten Wright
3 BJ Botha
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Ed O'Donoghue
Malcolm O'Kelly
5 Dan Tuohy
Kevin McLaughlin 6 David Pollock
Sean O'Brien 7 TJ Anderson
Jamie Heaslip 8 Chris Henry

Replacements Bernard Jackman
16 Andy Kyriacou
Mike Ross
17 Declan Fitzpatrick
Nathan Hines / Devin Toner
18 Ryan Caldwell
Stephen Keogh
Willie Faloon
Paul O'Donohoe
20 Cillian Willis
Fergus McFadden
21 Ian Humphreys
Girvan Dempsey
22 Jonny Shiells

Not Considered
due to Injury
Luke Fitzgerald
Jonathan Sexton
CJ van der Linde

Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey (IRFU), Leo Colgan (IRFU)
4th Official: Kevin Beggs (ARLB)
5th Official: Danny Wallace (ARLB)
TMO: Jude Quinn (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2009-12-24