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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 16th April 2011, 20:00

Television: Live: RTE 2/BBC 2 NI

That was TENSE!!

Brutally, unrelentingly so, but Leinster got there in the end.

When the final whistle blew last Saturday, the feeling in the Aviva Stadium was more relief than euphoria. The quarter-final against Leicester was a game Leinster always looked like winning, but there was always a doubt in the mind of home supporters. That doubt was due to the try-scoring chances in the first half that were squandered. There was a horrible feeling throughout that blowing those chances would come back to haunt us. When the Tigers finally broke through with three minutes to go, it felt like that prophecy would come true.

It led to an incredibly stressful last two minutes of defending, but Leinster stood tall and actually grew stronger with every tackle, gradually pushing the Tigers back down the pitch until they finally knocked on out of sheer exhaustion. It made the point that once again, when it comes to knock-out cup rugby, it's our defence that will win it for us. As quarter-finals go, this was much more like the 6-5 win over Harlequins two years ago than the 29-28 thriller against Clermont last season. Let's hope that's a good omen!

There was no doubt that the game swung on a number of key incidents, most importantly Alesana Tuilagi's disallowed try early in the second half. To most in the ground it looked like a try, even though the initial pass for it had been forward. However replays showed that Sean O'Brien did brilliantly to do just enough to force Tuilagi out. If that score had counted and had that simple Toby Flood penalty gone over, then Leinster could have been out.

However it would have been an unjust outcome as Leinster were clearly the better team. They competed better and smarter at the breakdown and forced numerous turnovers. They broke even at the scrums and destroyed the Leicester lineout, with Leo Cullen having a tour de force. Leicester went out to bully Leinster like they bully teams every week in the Premiership and when it didn't work, they had no plan B. Their attack was powerful but blunt and they badly missed the bit of inventiveness that the injured Geordan Murphy would have brought. Leinster had plenty of that type of inventiveness in their full back Isa Nacewa, who showed a touch of genius for his try.

He, O'Brien and man of the match Richardt Strauss were all outstanding and it's no coincidence that those three will contest the player of the season award for Leinster. Others deserve a mention too; Gordon D'Arcy with his seventeen tackles, a figure most backrows would be proud of, Mike Ross with his eight ball carries which supplemented his usual excellent work in the scrum and Kevin McLaughlin, who tackled like a demon and did a number on Tom Croft in the lineout. But it was a day full of heroes and Leinster are already looking forward to another packed Aviva stadium for the visit of Toulouse in the semi-final in two weeks time. It's a chance for revenge for last season's defeat at the same stage but before they can think about that, Leinster have a very important Magners League fixture against Ulster at the RDS on Saturday night.

This is the final game Leinster have against one of their rivals for a top four place. Ulster are in second place in the table on 59 points so Leinster need a win to overtake them. They will be also be hopeful of Connacht and the Dragons doing them a favour in their home games against Cardiff and the Ospreys respectively.

With their exit from Europe last week, Ulster will now be concentrating fully on getting into the top four and will fancy their chances of getting a top two finish if they can beat Leinster. They performed bravely away to Northampton last week and with a bit more composure at crucial times, they could have won. They were certainly the more creative team but ultimately they were beaten up by the powerful Saints pack.

The experience of playing in the knock-out stages of Europe will stand to them though, and hopefully give them a taste for more. Things are looking positive for Ulster rugby at the moment after their struggles in recent years. The South African invasion has reaped a dividend and two recently-signed New Zealanders, John Afoa and Jared Payne, will give the squad even more options next season.

It isn't just about foreign imports though as they've plenty of exciting young players coming through the academy system. Nevin Spence has earned himself a regular spot at outside centre and has impressed everyone with his direct style. Another centre, Luke Marshall, showed some of his huge potential before injury ended his season prematurely. Craig Gilroy has come in on the wing and helped himself to seven tries in the Magners League. Paddy McAllister has put in some good showings at prop and others like Paddy Jackson, Conor Gaston and David McIlwaine have hinted at big futures.

Coach Brian McLaughlin, who recently signed a contract extension, has named a strong team with only two injury-enforced changes from last week. Craig Gilroy comes in for Simon Danelli on the left wing and Tim Barker comes into the second in place of Johann Muller. It's still a strong Ulster team though and they'll be looking for revenge for the resounding 30-13 defeat to Leinster at Ravenhill over Christmas.

Leinster coach Joe Schmidt has juggled his squad to rest some of those who were carrying knocks after last week. He's rotated mainly in areas of strength though and has named a very capable side. He's made seven changes in total with Isaac Boss coming in for Eoin Reddan at scrum-half. As with the game last Christmas, Boss will be eager to show Ulster what they let go. Both centres are changed with Eoin O'Malley and Fergus McFadden coming in for Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll.

There are four further changes in the pack and the big news is the return of Shane Jennings who comes in for Sean O'Brien at openside flanker. Jennings is a very important player for the team and he'll be desperate to prove his fitness to secure his place for the semi-final. Devin Toner rotates in for Nathan Hines in the second row and both props are also rotated with Heinke van der Merwe and Stan Wright coming in for Cian Healy and Mike Ross.

It's a measure of the strength of the Leinster squad that only one of the incoming players is a non-international. Ulster will come out swinging but Leinster should have enough quality to keep their 100% home record this season intact.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Ulster Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Adam D'Arcy
Shane Horgan
14 Andrew Trimble
Eoin O'Malley
13 Nevin Spence
Fergus McFadden
12 Paddy Wallace
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Craig Gilroy
Jonathan Sexton
10 Ian Humphries
Isaac Boss
9 Ruan Pienaar

Heinke van der Merwe
1 Tom Court
Richardt Strauss
2 Rory Best (C)
Stan Wright
3 BJ Botha
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Tim Barker
Devin Toner
5 Dan Tuohy
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Robbie Diack
Shane Jennings
7 Chris Henry
Jamie Heaslip
8 Pedrie Wannenburg

Replacements Jason Harris-Wright 16 Andi Kyriacou
Cian Healy 17 Paddy McAllister
Mike Ross 18 Bryan Young
Nathan Hines 19 Neil McComb
Sean O'Brien / Dominic Ryan
20 Willie Faloon
Eoin Reddan 21 Paul Marshall
Ian Madigan 22 Darren Cave
David Kearney
23 Conor Gaston

Not Considered
due to Injury
Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Stephen Keogh,
Andrew Conway

Stephen Ferris,
Johann Muller,
Simon Danielli,
Declan Fitzpatrick
Officials Referee: Pascal Gauzere (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Peter Roche (both IRFU)
4th Official: Paul Haycock (Leinster Rugby Referees)
5th Official: Peter Dennehy (Leinster Rugby Referees)
TMO: Jude Quinn (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-04-15