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Ulster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Ravenhill, Belfast
Friday, 20th April 2012, 19:05

Television: Live: RTE2/BBC2 NI

In terms of the first part of the season's league ambitions, it was very much mission accomplished last Friday night at the RDS. After having to travel to Thomond Park for last season's final, Joe Schmidt was determined not to have to do that again. To make sure, Leinster had to finish top of the table to ensure home advantage for the semis and the final. Last week's win over Edinburgh coupled with the Ospreys' failure to get a fourth try against Cardiff meant Leinster achieved this target with two games to spare. This was despite a poor start to the league that saw them lose two of their first three games.

So Schmidt was pretty happy with his team's work last Friday, especially considering he had changed twelve players from the side that demolished Cardiff. It didn't affect Leinster too much though as they scored eight tries in a 54-13 win. The score was all the more remarkable considering the normally metronomic Fergus McFadden had a rare off night with his place kicks. McFadden's problems off the tee didn't affect his all-round game though and he, Shane Jennings, Sean Cronin, Isaac Boss and especially Devin Toner all had big games and four of them actually scored a try.

It was a masterful display of squad management by Schmidt as all the players who had narrowly missed the cut against Cardiff did their talking on the pitch and took out their frustrations on Edinburgh. It was also great to see youngsters like Brendan Macken, Noel Reid and Martin Moore come on and make such a positive impression. Admittedly though Edinburgh didn't have a whole lot to play for and long before the end their minds were drifting away to their semi-final in two weeks time in the Aviva against Ulster, Leinster's opponents this week.

Ulster won't read too much into Edinburgh's performance last week as they know the Scots have been an entirely different side in Europe this season. They'll still be massive favourites though for the match next week and if they can control their excitement and nerves and display the right attitude, they should win with something to spare to make their first final since 1999. Even the most hardcore Ulster fan wouldn't have seen this coming back in November. Then Ulster were in the middle of a typically inconsistent season.

Their league campaign had started brightly but then they suffered several defeats on the road and then most upsettingly a home defeat to Treviso. It is thought that defeat sealed coach Brian McLaughlin's fate and the decision was made then to remove him at the end of the season. Since then the wisdom of that choice has been increasingly questioned in the media and it would make things seriously uncomfortable for the Ulster hierarchy if McLaughlin led Ulster to a second Heineken Cup and was then kicked upstairs to manage the academy.

McLaughlin took a bit of criticism himself back in December when he effectively conceded the St. Stephen's Day match against Leinster by selecting a third-string line-up of mostly kids. In fairness to the young Ulstermen, they did themselves proud in a 42-14 defeat and McLaughlin's decision was vindicated when his full-strength team hammered Munster 33-17 four days later.

That win over Munster kick-started something for Ulster and they followed it up with another big win, 42-20 away to Edinburgh. However despite two bonus point wins in Europe over Aironi to put them back in contention, they weren't hugely fancied to beat Leicester and then get something from the trip to Clermont. They confounded everyone though by hammering the Tigers out the gate, 41-7 in their finest performance since they won the trophy. They followed it up with an excellent display in Clermont, only losing 19-15 after coming out on the wrong side of some poor officiating.

They were delighted with their place in the quarter-finals but they faced a daunting trip to Thomond Park to face Munster. In a remarkable game, they stunned the home crowd by racing into a 19-point lead. It was almost like they couldn't believe it themselves and they let Munster back into the game and it turned into a dogfight in the second half but they showed real character to defend for their lives and hold on for a six-point win.

After such a momentous win McLaughlin, like Schmidt, chose to rest twelve of his Heineken Cup starters last week. He doesn't have the strength in depth of Schmidt though and they went down to a 26-21 defeat to Connacht in Galway. This makes tomorrow's match a must win game for them if they want to have any chance of getting into the top four and the play-offs. Admittedly though, he may feel that is a worthwhile sacrifice if they make a Heineken Cup final. Of course, the fact that they could meet Leinster in that final, if they can beat Clermont, makes tomorrow's game all the more interesting.

Both coaches have named strong teams for tomorrow, if not quite the full strength teams that would meet in that hypothetical final. Ulster have made eleven changes, including two positional switches, to the team that started in Galway. The big news is that McLaughlin has opted to rest international forwards Stephen Ferris and Rory Best. Willie Faloon, Nigel Brady, Lewis Stevenson, Tom Court, Stefan Terblanche and Paddy Jackson are the only survivors from last week. Jackson moves from centre to out-half in place of Ian Humphreys and will partner South African Ruan Pienaar. Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Paddy Wallace and Craig Gilroy all return to form what's their first choice backline, aside from Humphreys.

In the pack Court moves from tighthead prop to his more usual loosehead role and Declan Fitzpatrick is back at tighthead after injury. There will be a lot of focus on Fitzpatrick's performance in the scrum as he's the most likely candidate to fill in for the hugely influential New Zealander John Afoa, who'll miss next week due to suspension. South African Johann Muller is back to captain the team from the second row where he'll partner Stevenson. Chris Henry comes in to deputise for Ferris at number six with Pedrie Wannenburg at eight and Faloon retained on the openside.

For Leinster Schmidt has again made wholesale changes to the team that took the field last week. The three players who started the two games against Cardiff and Edinburgh, Isa Nacewa, Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip are all given the week off. Only Dave Kearney retains the same jersey as last week starting on the right wing with his brother Rob at full back and Luke Fitzgerald on the left wing. Fergus McFadden moves to inside centre with Brian O'Driscoll back in the outside channel. Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan are back at half-back. Seven of the pack that started against Cardiff are back, the only difference being the inclusion of Dominic Ryan at openside flanker with Sean O'Brien deputising for Heaslip at number eight.

Both teams will relish a good solid work-out ahead of their respective semi-finals next weekend. Leinster will be looking for their sixth win on the trot against Ulster, although admittedly only one of those wins came in Ravenhill. A win for Leinster would also complete an inter-provincial grand-slam for the first time in the professional era.

So they'll have plenty of motivation but you feel that with Ulster having more to play for and with home advantage, that they might just nick this one.

Team Lineups

Ulster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Stefan Terblanche 15 Rob Kearney
Andrew Trimble 14 David Kearney
Darren Cave 13 Brian O'Driscoll
Paddy Wallace12 Fergus McFadden
Craig Gilroy 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Paddy Jackson 10 Jonathan Sexton
Ruan Pienaar 9 Eoin Reddan

Tom Court 1 Cian Healy
Nigel Brady 2 Richardt Strauss
Declan Fitzpatrick 3 Mike Ross
Johann Muller (C)
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Lewis Stevenson 5 Brad Thorn
Chris Henry 6 Kevin McLaughlin
Willie Faloon 7 Dominic Ryan
Pedrie Wannenburg 8 Sean O'Brien

Replacements Andy Kyricaou 16 Sean Cronin
Paddy McAllister 17 Heinke van der Merwe
Adam Macklin 18 Nathan White
Neil McComb 19 Devin Toner
Robbie Diack 20 Shane Jennings
Iain Porter 21 Isaac Boss
Ian Humphreys 22 Ian Madigan
Adam D'Arcy 23 Fionn Carr

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jarred Payne,
Simon Danielli,
Tim Barker,
Chris Cochrane,
Paul Marshall

Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
John Cooney,
Eoin O'Malley
Officials Referee: John Lacey (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Olly Hodges (both IRFU),
TMO: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-04-19