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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin,
Saturday, 30th March 2013, 18:15

Television: Live - RTE2/BBC 2 NI

Three months can be a long time in rugby. 

When Ulster beat Leinster 27-19 in Belfast the weekend before Christmas, it put them 16 points ahead of them on the table.  Leinster were down in the dumps having suffered three losses in a row for the first time in many years.  Ulster were in flying form though with 14 wins from 15 games and were looking serious contenders in both the league and in Europe. 

Since then, things have changed dramatically.  Leinster responded to that defeat by knuckling down and have won every game since in all competitions, a nine game winning streak.   Ulster have struggled though and have seen their lead, which once looked impregnable, brutally demolished, especially over the last two months when they've only won one of their last five games.  Glasgow overtook them the week before, and when Leinster beat Glasgow last week, they went top for the first time this season.  Leinster's ascension to the top came partly because of Ulster's defeat in Edinburgh the night before.  This result would have been scarcely credible earlier in the season when Ulster were scoring tries for fun and playing with a real swagger.

It must be said though that, like Leinster earlier in the season, Ulster's squad has been decimated by injuries.   Knocks to their talismanic foreign players like Johann Muller, Nick Williams and Jared Payne probably hurt them the most, especially over the Six Nations period.  All three are now back and trying to play their way to fitness before next week's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Saracens.  There's still plenty of other injuries though to major players like Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Paddy Wallace.

This week their coach Mark Anscombe also has to do without All Black tighthead prop John Afoa, who's back in New Zealand as his wife is due to give birth shortly.  This is particularly unfortunate timing as the other two main tightheads, Adam Macklin and Declan Fitzpatrick, are both injured.  So Ricky Lutton, a 27-year-old who was voted club player of the year in Ulster last season, gets the nod in a side showing six changes from last week. 

Tom Court will probably be relieved to have stayed at loosehead and will also be thankful that Ireland hooker Rory Best is back too.  There's no doubt that Leinster will be looking to capitalise on Ulster's scrum worries though, especially in light of the demolition job Ulster did on the Leinster scrum last December.  Nick Williams is fit to return at number eight which means Robbie Diack moves back to blindside and Dan Tuohy goes back to the second row to partner Muller.  Chris Henry is back at openside too and his importance to Ulster was magnified during his recent injury-enforced absence. 

Craig Gilroy comes in on the wing for Michael Allen in the only change to the outside backs but no doubt the most important change is the return of Ruan Pienaar at scrum-half.  Though there are doubts over his fitness, Ulster lean heavily on the Springbok to run the show and to kick goals, especially in the wake of Paddy Jackson's recent inconsistent form off the tea.  Ulster may be distracted by their impending Heineken Cup quarter-final (a position Leinster would dearly love to be in) but Leinster would be foolish to take that team lightly either.  They have plenty of ways to hurt them, particularly if Williams can get his mojo working and Pienaar brings those speedy backs into play.

And for all their good form, Leinster can't afford to be overly pleased with themselves either.  Their performance against Glasgow was easily their worst of the last nine games.  For sixty minutes they were very sloppy in attack and very soft and passive in defence, which meant the strong Glasgow ball carriers had a field day around the fringes.  Admittedly, nearly a quarter of the starting Leinster side were only back after long injury absences but that didn't excuse the general lethargy. 

In the end they showed great character and resolve to rescue themselves and get out of jail, urged on by a vocal home support.  Joe Schmidt won't want to see too many performances like that again however and the team picked will know they have to up their game for the run-in.  Schmidt is able to welcome back five Irish internationals to the squad this week in Rob Kearney, Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross and Jamie Heaslip. 

Strauss is back from long-term injury to form an all-Irish international front row with Ross and Healy.  Quinn Roux put in a mixed performance last week, so it's a major vote of confidence from Schmidt in the kid that he starts again in the second row with Devin Toner coming in for Leo Cullen instead.   Heaslip replaces the injured Jordi Murphy at number eight in the only change to last week's back row.

In the backs the return of Rob Kearney sees Isa Nacewa switch to the left wing with Dave Kearney retaining his place on the right wing.  In another major vote of confidence in a young player Brendan Macken gets the nod over Eoin O'Malley to partner Gordon D'Arcy in midfield.  Blessed with natural pace and power, Macken's rise to the top hasn't happened as quick as many predicted but he's worked hard on the flaws in his game and this is a major chance to show he can play in the big matches next season.  After last week's virtuoso display all eyes will be on Ian Madigan and especially his head-to-head battle with Paddy Jackson.  A summer test jersey with Ireland may well be the prize for the winner.

There's no doubt that Ulster are desperate to find some form at the moment ahead of their game against Saracens next week.  Leinster players and fans will no doubt wish them well for next week, especially against a team and organisation as fundamentally objectionable as Saracens.  But there will be no mercy shown during the game and Leinster will go all out for a win to cement their place at the top of the table ahead of the final three games.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Ulster Rugby
Teams Rob Kearney
15 Jared Payne
Dave Kearney 14 Andrew Trimble
Brendan Macken
13 Darren Cave
Gordon D'Arcy
12 Stuart Olding
Isa Nacewa 11 Craig Gilroy
Ian Madigan
10 Paddy Jackson
Isaac Boss 9 Ruan Pienaar

Cian Healy
1 Tom Court
Richardt Strauss
2 Rory Best
Mike Ross
3 Ricky Lutton
Devin Toner
4 Johan Muller(C)
Quinn Roux
5 Dan Tuohy
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Robbie Diack
Shane Jennings 7 Chris Henry
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 Nick Williams

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Rob Herring
Jack McGrath
17 Callum Black
Jamie Hagan 18 Kyle McCall
Leo Cullen
19 Lewis Stevenson
Rhys Ruddock
20 Iain Henderson
John Cooney 21 Roger Wilson
Andrew Goodman
22 Paul Marshall
Andrew Conway
23 Peter Nelson
Not considered
due to injury
Damien Browne,
Adam Byrne,
Dan Leavy,
Edward Byrne,
Jordan Coghlan,
Jack Conan,
Tadgh Furlong,
Eoin Reddan,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Jonathan Sexton,
Jordi Murphy,
Fergus McFadden 
  Stephen Ferris,
Adam Macklin,
Declan Fitzpatrick,
Tommy Bowe,
Paddy Wallace,
Paddy McAllister,
Chris Farrell,
Luke Marshall,
Sean Doyle,
Adam D'Arcy
Match Officials Referee: George Clancy (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, David Connolly (both IRFU),
4th Official: Brian MacNeice (Leinster Rugby Referees),
5th Official: Gary Conway (Leinster Rugby Referees),
TMO: Jude Quinn (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-03-29