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Ulster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Guinness Pro12 Round 20
Ravenhill a.k.a. Kingspan Stadium, Belfast,
Friday, 24th April 2015, 19:35

Television: Live - Sky Sport 5, BBC2 NI

So Leinster put in a brave, yet ultimately doomed performance last week, in losing to Toulon in the semi-final of Champions Cup. They were largely written off beforehand so their performance in bringing Toulon to extra time brought much praise from the media and (slightly worryingly) from the Leinster coaches and players themselves. With the winning mentality the Leinster players so often talk about, I didn't think they did "moral victories", but apparently they do now.

In the aftermath of the match, any disgruntled Leinster fans have once again been lambasted by sections of the media among them Tony Ward, Trevor Hogan and Eddie O'Sullivan who were incredulous. How could this "brainless" and "ignorant" rabble not be won over by such a gutsy and committed performance? This was proof positive that Matt O'Connor's methods are sound and any "real fan" would know that. If Jimmy Gopperth's drop goal in the 78th minute had gone over, he'd be a hero and we'd all be worshipping at O'Connor's feet.

Back to the drop goal in a while, but first let's analyse this performance.

First off, it rained.

A lot!

We had thought that Irish rugby teams had moved past the days when heavy rain was a thing to be welcomed but Matt O'Connor would have been thrilled to see the weather. He knew it would reduce the match to a slug-fest where the attacking rugby that his team has forgotten how to play would be nigh-on impossible. And so it proved, as Toulon tried to play some rugby and basically knocked on ball after ball. Leinster kept it tight and lived off the Toulon mistakes to earn a lead. Probably the right tactics in the circumstances but when the rain stopped and the pitch dried up, Leinster kept going with the same tactics.

Secondly, there was Toulon's attitude, which as Bryan Habana made clear afterwards, was that they just had to turn up to win. They were sluggish and lazy and their elderly pack looked every one of their advanced years. In short, they were there for the taking especially with Freddie Michalak doing his best impersonation of Gopperth by playing so deep. Sure Leinster's defence improved and they didn't miss as many tackles as usual but Toulon made their lives a lot easier but running straight at them from deep.

But regardless, Leinster did have a chance to more than likely win the game with that drop goal two minutes from the end of normal time. You do wonder if Leinster ever drill these type of scenarios in training but even though it was a correct option to go for the drop, it did look like they rushed it a little. And then there's the choice of who takes on the responsibility to drop the goal. In a normal situation it would be the out-half who would be set up for the chance, but it doesn't have to be. What if your out-half isn't particularly good at them and had two chances to win games with drop goals this season and has missed both times? Then you have another out-half on the pitch, playing out of position admittedly but someone who you've entrusted the goal-kicking to. Perhaps he could be a better option? But Ian Madigan wasn't considered and they went with Jimmy Gopperth again and just like against Connacht and Treviso earlier in the season, Gopperth missed.

That isn't bad luck, that's bad management.

In any case Europe is done now so Leinster are left only with the wreckage of their league campaign. In a season of "must-win" games that Leinster have mainly lost or drawn, this is a must-win game that Leinster must actually...win. They're eight points outside the play-offs spots and have only three games in which to make up the difference. Of all the four teams ahead of them, Ulster are the team they have most chance of catching, and that's a slim chance at that. First of all they'll need to beat Ulster tomorrow and then hope Ulster lose at least one or their final two games at home to Munster or away to Glasgow.

But beating Ulster won't be easy and they'll be massively motivated to put Leinster out as they've lost to them in three out of the last four play-offs. They'll also be determined to be in the final as it's been set for Ravenhill regardless of who finishes first in the table. Ulster have also come into some decent form after a fairly troubled season on and off the pitch. They've gotten most of their key men back fit and will be desperate to finally collect some silverware after knocking on the door for the past few seasons. They've named an unchanged team from the one that beat Connacht.

As has become traditional, Matt O'Connor has spent the build-up to the match moaning about the Irish player welfare system. Somehow operating with the same system, he managed to win a league last season though, so perhaps he can have a word with himself about how he was able to cope with it then. Or maybe it was just that he still had Jonno Gibbes there with him last season.

In any case, every time he whinges to the press about the non-availability of his "top men" he's sending a message to the rest of his squad that they're not good enough and perhaps that has contributed to the lack of belief in the squad. Leinster's success in the league over the last few seasons has been built on the overall strength of the squad, not just the top men.

O'Connor has made three changes from the team that won last week. Zane Kirchner comes in on the right wing for the luckless Fergus McFadden who is out for the rest of the season. Gordon D'Arcy starts instead of Ian Madigan in what may well be one of his final games in Leinster blue. There are two changes in the pack with Dominic Ryan coming in for Jordi Murphy, which means Sean O'Brien switches over to the blindside. Richardt Strauss also starts at hooker in place of Sean Cronin. Jamie Heaslip will make his 200th appearance for Leinster which is a remarkable tribute to his endurance.

In truth Leinster's away form in the league has been appalling with their only two wins coming against two of the worst teams in the league in Zebre and Cardiff. They have won in two of their last three visits to Ravenhill though but a match of this importance coming only five days after Toulon would be a tough ask at the best of times.

Ulster can smell blood and a chance to finish Leinster's season and realistically you'd have to fancy them to take it.

Team Lineups

Ulster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Louis Ludik 15 Rob Kearney
Tommy Bowe 14 Zane Kirchner
Jared Payne 13 Ben Te'o
Darren Cave 12 Gordon D'Arcy
Craig Gilroy 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Paddy Jackson 10 Jimmy Gopperth
Ruan Pienaar 9 Isaac Boss

Callum Black 1 Cian Healy
Rory Best (C)
2 Richardt Strauss
Wiehahn Herbst 3 Mike Ross
Dan Tuohy 4 Devin Toner
Franco van der Merve 5 Mike McCarthy
Iain Henderson6 Sean O'Brien
Chris Henry 7 Dominic Ryan
Roger Wilson8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Rob Herring 16 Sean Cronin
Andrew Warwick 17 Jack McGrath
Bronson Ross 18 Tadhg Furlong
Robbie Diack 19 Ben Marshall
Clive Ross 20
Jordi Murphy
Paul Marshall 21 Eoin Reddan
Ian Humphries 22 Ian Madigan
Stuart McCloskey 23 Darragh Fanning

Not Considered
due to Injury
Stuart Olding,
Andrew Trimble

Edward Byrne,
Rhys Ruddock,
Kane Douglas,
Fergus McFadden,
Martin Moore,
David Kearney
Officials Referee: John Lacey (IRFU, 44th competition game),
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, Olly Hodges (both IRFU),
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Walsh (IRFU ),
TMO: Seamus Flannery (IRFU )

by Jim O'Connor, © 2015-04-23