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Ulster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Ravenhill, Belfast,
Friday, 21st December 2012, 19:05

Television: Live RTE2/BBC2 NI

Let's be honest, we've been spoiled. Over the last couple of years Leinster have delivered so many big performances when required, especially at home, that maybe we, the supporters, have taken these deeds for granted. After the excellent performance away to Clermont fell just short of a win, Leinster fans were all fully confident that their team would do the business at the Aviva and win and win well.

Sadly it wasn't to be. Free from the suffocating pressure of protecting their winning home record the week before, Clermont came out confidently and were very quick to settle into their gameplan. They quietened the crowd by playing smart, unspectacular but extremely effective rugby. Leinster responded by trying to fire themselves and the crowd up but they never quite got up to the level required. Sure they can have some justifiable complaints against referee Wayne Barnes's typically erratic performance, but it wasn't why they lost. It wasn't Barnes and it wasn't the lousy atmosphere either, which is always the way in the Aviva where the majority of the crowd only react to positives on the pitch and rarely rouse themselves of their own volition.

No, sadly it was the fact that Leinster were simply beaten by the better team on the day. To beat Clermont, they knew they needed to be at their best and Leinster were far from that. They simply made too many mistakes in their handling, kicking and decision-making to be able to win. Unable to get their 'A' game going, it came down to a physical battle and against a team of Clermont's size, there was only going to be one winner there. It's a testament to the team's character that they managed to score two tries in the last quarter to earn a losing bonus point in a game in which they were clearly out-matched.

How important that losing bonus point will be remains to be seen. Leinster have qualified twice from the group stages after losing two matches, firstly in 2006, when they took bonus points in every single game whether they won or lost and 2009, when they took two try bonus points and two losing bonuses for a total of 20 points. This season, their position as a contender for a second place qualifier has been severely weakened by the performances in the first two rounds. They were fortunate to beat Exeter at all and after a strong first half performance in Llanelli, they fell away badly in the second half and left a potential bonus point behind them.

So Leinster find themselves on ten points and with only a miserly three tries to their name, they're going to have to go all out in the last two games to get up to 20 points and boost their try-count. It's certainly no easy feat (especially away to Exeter) but even if they manage it, it's still not likely to be enough. But you're not dead until you're in the ground, and while there's still life in Leinster, they'll keep fighting, because as we've seen before this is a tournament that can surprise you.

In the meantime they can return their focus to the Pro12 where they take on league-leaders Ulster. Ulster are still unbeaten in the league and are nine points clear of the second placed Scarlets. Up to last weekend, they were having a perfect season with 13 straight wins, including three in the Heineken Cup. After thrashing Northampton in Franklins Gardens in round 3, they were the hottest of favourites to repeat the feat on home soil.

However, as good as they've been, they're still a team in development and like many an Irish rugby team before them, they still have to learn how to approach a game in which they're massive favourites. It certainly took Leinster long enough and they had to learn some harsh lessons along the way (remember Sale at home in 2003?). In fairness to Northampton, they showed some of the pride that had been missing the week before and came out firing to take a 10-0 lead. Ulster came back into it but could only get back to within a point. The defeat is far from fatal, as they still lead the pool by five points. However it may make their final round trip to Castres trickier than it needed to be.

Their disappointment in defeat was compounded by a serious knee injury to Tommy Bowe. Second row Dan Touhy also sustained a calf injury and they join Johann Muller, Lewis Stevenson, Stephen Ferris and Declan Fitzpatrick amongst the names on the injury list. New Zealand coach Mark Anscombe, who took over in controversial circumstances from Brian McLaughlin, had enjoyed a dream start until last week and it will be interesting to see how he reacts to his first set-back on the field.

Yet, despite the injuries, Ulster are still able to put out quite a strong team with four changes from the team that started last week. In the backs Bowe's injury sees Andrew Trimble switch to the right wing and Ireland sensation Craig Gilroy come in to start on the left. Losing a player of Bowe's quality is a blow for any team but Gilroy is some replacement. Jared Payne is at full back and the former Auckland Blue has been in terrific form this season. Like Isa Nacewa has been doing for Leinster for years, he just provides that bit of magic in their attack setting up and scoring tries by almost always making the right decision. In the centres Luke Marshall comes in for Paddy Wallace to partner Darren Cave, and Marshall is another young man in a hurry after impressing for Ireland against Fiji. Out-half Paddy Jackson is fit enough to partner Ruan Pienaar as normal.

In the pack the powerful front row of Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa are all retained. With three injuries to their first choice second rows though there's a bit of a callow look to the engine room with Iain Henderson and Neil McComb starting and former Leinster under-20 player Alan O'Connor on the bench. Henderson is yet another excellent young player who's made a rapid rise this season but who has played most of his rugby so far in the backrow, so it's a big ask for him to effectively lead the lineout. In the backrow Roger Wilson drops to the bench to allow Nick Williams move to number eight with Robbie Diack starting at blindside. Chris Henry, who's been the model of consistency this season, continues to captain the team in Muller's absence.

For Leinster coach Joe Schmidt, this time of year is always difficult in terms of losing access to internationals and it's been made even more awkward by more injuries. He's made eight personnel changes to the team that started last week and has also made several positional switches. Noel Reid gets a start at fullback with Andrew Conway on the right wing and Fergus McFadden switched over to the left. After two games in the outside channel Gordon D'Arcy switches back to inside centre and Brendan Macken starts at outside after impressing for the 'A' team against Jersey last week. Ian Madigan is back at out-half and Eoin Reddan somewhat surprisingly starts ahead of Ulster old boy Isaac Boss.

In the all-Irish international pack there's a completely new front row in Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Michael Bent. Leo Cullen captains the team from the second row alongside Devin Toner. Kevin McLaughlin has recovered from the knock he took in the first Clermont match to resume in the back row with Sean O'Brien switching back to openside and Jamie Heaslip at number eight. The most noticeable name on the bench is that of Adam Byrne, a former Naas CBS schools player who isn't even in the academy at the moment. However he's been handed an opportunity in the A's this year and has impressed everyone with his pace, power and try-scoring ability. He scored two tries for the A's last week and to have come from nowhere to being in the senior match-day squad is really some achievement. He may or may not get on tomorrow evening depending on how the game's going but he's certainly someone to watch out for.

Leinster have won their last seven meetings in all competitions against Ulster, including last season's Heineken Cup final and a league semi-final two years ago. They last lost to them in Ravenhill when they were beaten 16-14 in October 2009. But that was Leinster's only loss in Ravenhill in the last eight years with two draws and five wins since 2004. It's a pretty remarkable record considering how strong Ulster are up there. You can be sure this Ulster team are only too well aware of it though and they'll be determined to break their losing streak.

For Leinster it will be a case of how bruised the bodies are after last week. The spirit will be willing, no doubt, but physically this game may have come a little too soon for them after the Clermont double-header and Ulster might just favourites to nick this one. Then again, this Leinster would hate to go into Christmas on the back of three defeats in a row and this might give them the motivation to keep their good record in Ravenhill intact.

P.S. Happy Christmas to all our readers from everyone at Leinsterfans.com!

Team Lineups

Ulster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Jared Payne 15 Noel Reid
Andrew Trimble 14 Andrew Conway
Darren Cave 13 Brendan Macken
Luke Marshall12 Gordon D'Arcy
Craig Gilroy 11 Fergus McFadden
Paddy Jackson 10 Ian Madigan
Ruan Pienaar 9 Eoin Reddan

Tom Court 1 Cian Healy
Rory Best 2 Sean Cronin
John Afoa 3 Michael Bent
Iain Henderson 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Neil McComb 5 Devin Toner
Robbie Diack 6 Kevin McLaughlin
Chris Henry (C)
7 Sean O'Brien
Nick Williams 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Rob Herring 16 Aaron Dundon
Callum Black 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Adam Macklin 18 Jamie Hagan
Alan O'Connor 19 Tom Denton
Roger Wilson 20 Rhys Ruddock
Paul Marshall 21 Isaac Boss
Paddy Wallace 22 Andrew Goodman
Adam D'Arcy 23 Adam Byrne

Not Considered
due to Injury

Tommy Bowe,
Dan Touhy,
Lewis Stevenson,
Johann Muller,
Stephen Ferris,
Chris Farrell,
Declan Fitzpatrick,
Paddy McAllister

Luke Fitzgerald,
Mark Flanagan,
David Doyle,
Rob Kearney,
Darren Hudson,
Brian O'Driscoll,
Richardt Strauss,
Isa Nacewa,
Shane Jennings
Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Olly Hodges (both IRFU),
TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-12-20