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Leinster Rugby vs Scarlets
RDS Showground, Dublin
Friday, 4th March 2011, 19:35

Television: Live: TG4/BBC Cymru Wales

It's getting tight at the top!

With just six league games to go now for Leinster, the battle for that all-important top two spot is going to be tense. Another bonus point went begging last week against Treviso and with the Ospreys getting a five point haul against Connacht, they're now two points ahead of Leinster in second place. The Ospreys have a pretty reasonable run-in and can concentrate their full attention on the league, making them all the more dangerous.

With Munster nine points clear at the top, they look to have first place sown up. However only six points separates the Ospreys in second place and a resurgent Ulster in sixth. Ulster also have a game in hand, as do fifth-place Cardiff, which only increases the pressure on Leinster. So even getting into the top four isn't as assured as it once looked. With that in mind, it's vital Leinster create a gap between them and their nearest rivals so tomorrow night's game against the fourth-place Scarlets is an absolute must-win match.

The Scarlets have had a pretty decent season so far and were riding high in the table before some recent poor results knocked them down a bit. An away defeat to Connacht was followed by a last-minute home defeat to Ulster. They recovered somewhat last week with a scrappy win over Edinburgh that ended a six-game losing streak in all competitions. However, they'll be well aware how much their season depends on tomorrow night.

Their recent head to head record against Leinster isn't great with only one win from the last eight meetings. They drew the last meeting in December though, and Leinster always respect the Scarlets with the memory of the 50 point drubbing in the RDS four years ago still fresh in their minds. When the Scarlets click they play some of the most attractive rugby in Europe. In the centre Regan King is a master and though he is off to Clermont Auvergne at the end of the season, he'll be desperate to leave with some silverware to show from his time there.

King is named in the centre alongside Gareth Maule in what is a strong Scarlets line-up. Welsh internationals Tavis Knoyle and the prolific Rhys Priestland are the half-backs. Dan Newton is preferred to Daniel Evans at full-back and he makes up the back three with eighteen-year-old wing sensation George North and Joe Ajuwa, who struggled defensively in the last game against Leinster. The massively experienced Iestyn Thomas captains the team from loosehead prop alongside Rhys Lawrence and Rhys Thomas in the front row. Lou Reed and young Aaron Shingler are the second rows and Rob McCusker, Josh Turnbull and Ben Morgan make up a useful and mobile backrow. They're missing a few key players to injury like David Lyons and Ken Owens, but it's still a very decent side.

Last week Leinster beat Treviso convincingly but coach Joe Schmidt was disappointed that they didn't get the four-try bonus point that was there for the taking. He'll have also been concerned about the lineout that misfired badly. However there were positives particularly in the performances of some of the young players. Dominic Ryan had a massive game in the back row, making a number of crucial plays. Both Dave Kearney and Andrew Conway had assured games on the wings but the star man was out-half Ian McKinley. In only his fourth start for Leinster he gave an excellent all-round display. He kicked well, made his tackles and showed great running and handling skills in setting up the first try before scoring the second himself. It's early days but he really laid down a marker for the future.

McKinley doesn't feature tomorrow though, which is no reflection on him, more the need to give Jonny Sexton a match. McKinley will instead play for the 'A' team in the British and Irish Cup quarter-final against Bedford on Saturday, along with Andrew Conway and Eamonn Sheridan who also drop out of last week's squad. Sexton returns to partner Isaac Boss at halfback in one of five changes to the side that started against Treviso. Fergus McFadden is also back from Ireland duty and he partners Eoin O'Malley in midfield. The only change in the back three is Niall Morris coming in for Conway alongside Dave Kearney and Isa Nacewa, who was just announced as Leinster's player of the month. In the pack Leo Cullen is another player back from international duty and he captains the team from the second row. The final change is Rhys Ruddock coming in at number eight for the injured Stephen Keogh. Nathan Hines in on the bench, which also features Old Belvedere full-back Danny Riordan, who used to play with Connacht and Munster.

Having Sexton and McFadden back definitely gives the Leinster backline a more solid look and hopefully Cullen's expertise will sort out the lineout problems from last week. With a good weather conditions forecast, it should be an entertaining, high scoring game as the Scarlets will, as ever, come to play. However Leinster should be good enough to win and hopefully deny the Scarlets any points from the match.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Scarlets
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Dan Newton
Niall Morris 14 George North
Eoin O'Malley 13 Regan King
Fergus McFadden
12 Gareth Maule
David Kearney
11 Joe Ajuwa
Jonathan Sexton
10 Rhys Priestland
Isaac Boss 9 Tavis Knoyle

Heinke van der Merwe 1 Iestyn Thomas (C)
Richardt Strauss
2 Rhys Lawrence
Stan Wright 3 Rhys Thomas
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Lou Reed
Devin Toner 5 Aaron Shingler
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Rob McCusker
Dominic Ryan
7 Josh Turnbull
Rhys Ruddock 8 Ben Morgan

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Kirby Myhill
Jack McGrath
17 Rhodri Jones
Simon Shawe
18 Simon Gardiner
Nathan Hines
19 Damien Welch
Paul Ryan
20 Jonathan Edwards
Paul O'Donohoe 21 Gareth Davies
Ian Madigan 22 Daniel Evans
Daniel Riordan
23 Nic Reynolds

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shane Horgan,
Shaun Berne,
Shane Jennings,
Stephen Keogh

David Lyons,
Andy Fenby,
Ken Owens,
Dominic Day
Officials Referee: Andy Macpherson (SRU)
Assistant Referees: Michael Black, Mark Hermin (both IRFU)
4th Official: Paul Haycock (Leinster Rugby Referees)
5th Official: Stephen McCann (Leinster Rugby Referees)
TMO: Kevin Beggs (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-03-03

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