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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
Magners League Semi-Final
RDS Showground, Dublin
Friday, 13th May 2011, 19:05

Television: Live: TG4/BBC 2 NI

So Leinster are in endgame mode now with two trophies in their sights and only three games to win to take them both home with them for the summer. With the Heineken Cup final against Northampton coming up next Saturday, it's being a difficult balancing act for Leinster coach Joe Schmidt this week. Leinster's players wouldn't be human if they didn't have one eye on that match, however he's got to keep them focused on the job at hand.

In a way, things are made more difficult by the fact that Leinster are overwhelming favourites to win the match. This is based on the manner of Leinster's two wins over Ulster this season. In both those games the result was effectively decided in the first twenty minutes. Up in Belfast in December Ulster couldn't cope with the Isaac Boss/Sean O'Brien partnership that helped itself to two tries. Then in the RDS four weeks ago, a narrow Ulster defence were stretched by the width Leinster played the game at and wingers Luke Fitzgerald and Shane Horgan made hay. Three tries in less than twenty minutes and it was game over.

Schmidt has been pushing the fact that in both the games, Ulster came back in the last half an hour, played their best rugby and scored some fine tries. That's true, however it must also be acknowledged that in both cases Leinster had pretty much emptied their bench and eased up. Then you have the fact that Ulster have never beaten Leinster away from Ravenhill in the Magners League and have to go back to 1999 for their last win in Dublin (Brian O'Driscoll actually played in the centre that day). Yet, perversely, all of this actually makes Ulster more dangerous opponents.

In the minds of many Leinster fans, this game will essentially be a foregone conclusion. The Ulster players will be sucking up all the negative vibes coming their way from the bookies and the media and will be using them as motivation to pull off a major shock. As big outsiders, the pressure is off them and with no other tournament to focus on, they can go out and give it a lash as they've got nothing to lose.

It's been a season of clear improvement for Ulster, especially when you consider their form in recent years. After finishing in the bottom three of the table for the last three seasons, a top four finish is excellent progress. Throw in the fact that they qualified out of their Heineken Cup pool for the first time in 12 years and there's definitely a feel good factor about Ulster rugby at the moment. True, the performances haven't always been that consistent but they've found a way to dog out a lot of wins, the type of games they'd have lost last season.

They're still far from the finished article but as Leinster fans will tell you, building a champion team doesn't happen overnight. Their policy of big name recruitment from abroad plus developing their home-grown talent is already paying off and there's more to come on both fronts.

Ulster have made just the one change to the team that won away to the Dragons last week. Dan Tuohy is injured so Tim Barker comes into the second row. Tuohy joins an injury list that includes internationals Stephen Ferris, Andrew Trimble, Paddy Wallace and BJ Botha so there's no doubt their squad has been stretched to the limit. None of their South African internationals Pedrie Wannenburg, Johann Muller or Ruan Pienaar (who's just been named the Magners League player of the season) have really fired in the games against Leinster this season so they'll be looking to show their true quality. Their exciting young winger Craig Gilroy has scored a try every time he's played Leinster and he'll be looking to continue that run.

Schmidt has named a strong Leinster team with nine changes, one positional, from the team that started against Glasgow. Ulster will be delighted to see that Shane Horgan, their chief tormentor with three tries in the two games so far, is given a rest this week. It means Fergus McFadden, who was excellent last week, switches to the right wing and Luke Fitzgerald comes back in on the left wing. Brian O'Driscoll replaces Eoin O'Malley at outside centre to make his 150th Leinster appearance and Jonny Sexton replaces Ian Madigan at out-half. Intriguingly, Isaac Boss is given the nod again at scrum-half and Eoin Reddan will be itching to remind Schmidt of his qualities when he gets on.

In the front five, only hooker Richardt Strauss retains his starting place as Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen and Nathan Hines all come back in. The only change in the back row is the return of Sean O'Brien at blindside flanker in place of Dominic Ryan. Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip complete a selection that is not far off what will be the starting line-up next week. Once again though Schmidt has made a couple of choices that will keep the whole squad on their toes.

This game will be all about the first half hour or so, because Ulster know they can't allow Leinster a good start again. You can be sure the big message from their coach Brian McLaughlin will be not to concede a try in the first twenty minutes by any means necessary. This may involve disrupting the breakdown and conceding a few kickable penalties, but they'll accept that rather than seeing their line breached.

Ulster will be looking to turn the match into a dogfight, precisely the type of game Leinster won't want ahead of the match in Cardiff next week. They'll want to frustrate a Leinster team who would love the game to go exactly the way it did four weeks ago. There was plenty of off-the-ball niggle in that game and with the rematch coming again so close, they will no doubt be a few scores settled.

For Leinster they will need an ultra-professional performance. Their wins earlier in the season came from the physical pressure they put on Ulster from the start in all aspects of the game. They would do well to remember that there will be no repeat of those score lines without their normal physical commitment and the risk that comes with that.

In rugby the general rule of thumb is that the more teams play each other, the closer the scores get. This match may well not run to the pattern of the first two games this season, but Leinster should have enough strength, especially off the bench, to close the deal and book their place in the Grand Final for the second season running.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Ulster Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Adam D'Arcy
Fergus McFadden
14 Craig Gilroy
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Darren Cave
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Nevin Spence
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Simon Danielli
Jonathan Sexton
10 Ian Humphries
Isaac Boss
9 Ruan Pienaar

Cian Healy
1 Tom Court
Richardt Strauss
2 Rory Best (C)
Mike Ross
3 Declan Fitzpatrick
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Johann Muller
Nathan Hines 5 Tim Barker
Sean O'Brien
6 Pedrie Wannenburg
Shane Jennings
7 Chris Henry
Jamie Heaslip
8 Robbie Diack

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Andi Kyriacou
Heinke van der Merwe 17 Paddy McAllister
Stan Wright 18 Jerry Cronin
Devin Toner 19 Neil McComb
Kevin McLaughlin
20 TJ Anderson
Eoin Reddan 21 Paul Marshall
Ian Madigan 22 Ian Whitten
David Kearney
23 Conor Gaston

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Brendan Macken,
Andrew Conway

Stephen Ferris,
Andrew Trimble,
Paddy Wallace
BJ Botha,
Willie Faloon,
Dan Tuohy
Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: John Lacey, Ollie Hodges (both IRFU)
4th Official: John Carvill (IRFU)
5th Official: Brian MacNeice (IRFU)
TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-05-12