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Leinster Rugby vs Ospreys
RDS Showground, Dublin
Friday, 23rd March 2012, 19:05

Television: Live: RTE2, BBC Wales

With yet another mediocre Six Nations campaign over for Ireland, it's Leinster business only from now until (hopefully) the end of May. Obviously Leinster will have one eye on the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Cardiff coming up in a fortnight. But first they have some business to attend to in the Pro12 league facing their two nearest rivals, third-placed Ospreys and second-placed Munster in successive weeks. With an eleven-point lead with five games to go, Leinster would guarantee themselves top spot by winning both their next two games. This would allow them some leeway to rest players in the final three games, two of which are tough away trips to Ulster and the Dragons. Thomond Park is always a tough place to get a victory, so tomorrow's match against the Ospreys really is a must-win game.

It's fair to say the Ospreys are going through a pretty tough time at the moment, both on and off the field. Last season they lost key men in James Hook, Lee Byrne and Mike Philips plus their two former All Blacks Jerry Collins and Marty Holah. It didn't seem to hurt them too much at the start of the season as their young team got off to a great start, including hammering Leinster 27 - 3 in the first match of the season. They actually won their first six league games, including a fine win in Thomond Park against Munster.

However then they lost away to Glasgow and since then results have been pretty hit and miss. Their European campaign fizzled out when a disappointing draw away to Treviso was followed by two narrow defeats in the double header against Saracens. Their recent form has seen them begin to slide down the table with three defeats in their last five league games. The departure of their Director of Rugby Scott Johnson and their head coach Sean Holley in the middle of February certainly hasn't helped them. Former player Steve Tandy has been brought in as head coach after a short but successful spell in charge of Bridgend. It's fair to say that he probably didn't command the biggest salary as well.

The Ospreys are desperate to cut costs and there seems to be a different player jumping ship each week. Tommy Bowe was allowed to leave with a year on his contract left to rejoin Ulster next season. Hooker Huw Bennett is off to Lyon, winger Nikki Walker is going to Worchester and flanker Tom Smith is off to London Irish. With Shane Williams retiring at the end of this term, it's a wonder who's actually going to be left there next season. Prop Adam Jones is one of the few to sign a new deal, reportedly turning down a lucrative offer to go to France for family reasons. They do have some fine young players in the likes of Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric and Ashley Beck but you'd wonder how long they can hang onto them.

In their last match they lost at home to Glasgow, which allowed Munster to overtake them and go second. The Ospreys will be desperate not to go into a freefall which could see them fail to make the top four altogether. They've named a squad with several members of the Welsh Grand Slam winning squad including Ryan Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Paul James and Justin Tipuric who all start and Adam Jones, Ian Evans and Rhys Webb who are named on the bench. They've a couple of handy Samoans too in scrum-half Kahn Fotuali'I and number eight George Stowers. Dan Biggar is a reliable kicker and Ashley Beck has been in good form this season too. All in all, it's probably a stronger team than would have been expected.

The big news for Leinster is the return from injury of Brian O'Driscoll and Leo Cullen who are both, somewhat surprisingly, named in the starting team that shows ten changes (including two positional) from the team that took on Aironi. Typically of O'Driscoll, his healing powers have seen him return to action long before Joe Schmidt would have dared hope. Obviously after such a long break, he's not going to be match-fit straight away but he'll be looking to get some decent game-time in the next two week's to put himself in the frame for the quarter-final. Cullen's return after surgery to his Achilles is also a massive boost as his leadership is crucial.

Cullen will be partnered in the second row by a certain Brad Thorn. The New Zealand legend makes his senior debut for Leinster after finally completing his short-term move from Japanese side Fukoaka Sanix. Though he will only here for a short time, let's hope it's a good time and his presence alone will give a massive boost to the squad. Heinke van der Merwe, Richardt Strauss and Nathan White continue in the front row but the backrow is all changed with Rhys Ruddock moving to blindside and Dominic Ryan and Leo Auva'a coming in to start.

In the backline Isa Nacewa is back at full-back, which means Luke Fitzgerald is moved to the wing. David Kearney and Fergus McFadden are back from Ireland squad duty to take their place on the right wing and inside centre respectively. Ian Madigan and Isaac Boss continue at half-back. With so many of Ireland's Six Nations squad still to come back into the mix next week, it's hugely encouraging that Leinster are able to put out such a strong team.

No matter what team they put out, the Ospreys are always a tough team to score tries against as they pride themselves on their abrasive defence. Even in this fixture last season, Leinster put out a very strong team but limped to a 15-10 win in which they were held try-less. So the fans will need to be patient, however the feelgood factor from seeing O'Driscoll, Cullen and Thorn take the pitch should ensure a happy mood in the crowd. It probably won't be too pretty and the Ospreys certainly won't roll over but Leinster should have enough to win and make league history by extending their undefeated run to 15 matches.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Richard Fussell
David Kearney 14 Hanno Dirksen
Brian O'Driscoll
13 Andrew Bishop
Fergus McFadden 12 Ashley Beck
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Eli Walker
Ian Madigan
10 Dan Biggar
Isaac Boss
9 Kahn Fotuali'i

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Paul James
Richardt Strauss 2 Richard Hibbard
Nathan White 3 Aaron Jarvis
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Ryan Jones
Brad Thorn
5 Alun Wyn Jones (C)
Rhys Ruddock 6 Tom Smith
Dominic Ryan
7 Justin Tipuric
Leo Auva'a
8 George Stowers

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Scott Baldwin
Jack McGrath 17 Ryan Bevington
Jamie Hagan 18 Adam Jones
Damian Browne 19 Ian Evans
Kevin McLaughlin 20 James King
John Cooney 21 Rhys Webb
Eoin O'Malley 22 Matthew Morgan
Fionn Carr 23 Tom Isaacs

Not Considered
due to Injury
Shane Horgan,
Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
Mike Ross

Jonathan Thomas,
Joe Bearman,
Huw Bennett,
Duncan Jones,
Cai Griffiths,
Gareth Owen,
Nikki Walker
Officials Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Simon McDowell, Olly Hodges (both IRFU)
4th Official: Gary Glennon (Leinster Rugby Referees)
5th Official: Dan Wallace (Leinster Rugby Referees)
TMO: Alan Rogan (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-03-22