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Leinster Rugby vs Scarlets
RDS Showground, Dublin
Saturday, 23th February 2013, 19:45

Television: We're actually on TG4 - Praise Jebus!!!!!

It has often been an easy target for cynical media hacks and dim, surly pundits, but the Pro12 has actually been quite entertaining this season and is now set for a Battle Royale to decide the top-four play-off positions. True, the top six teams separated themselves quite early from the rest of the pack, but since then it's been neck and neck as they jockey for position. The top six in current order are Ulster, Glasgow, Leinster, Scarlets, Ospreys and Munster. Leinster will play all five of their rivals in their final seven games, with four of those at home starting with tomorrow's match against the Scarlets.

League-leaders Ulster got off to a great start winning their first eleven straight games but a recent home defeat to Ospreys plus a lengthening injury list has made their hold on first place feel a little less secure. They travel to second-placed Glasgow tonight in the game of the weekend. Glasgow have won five on the bounce and last week they put a remarkable 60 points on the Dragons in Rodney Parade. They're clearly full of confidence and if they can beat Ulster, it will re-open the race for the top spot. Leinster know that someone above them in the table is going to definitely lose points and they have to make sure they can capitalise on it.

As predicted, last week Leinster took care of an under-strength Treviso team with the minimum of fuss scoring six tries in a professional performance. This week though they face a much tougher test as they take on the Scarlets in a third versus fourth battle. After a bright start to the season when they briefly led the table with seven out of ten league wins, the Scarlets suffered something of a mid season collapse. They lost eight of their nine games in all competitions in December and January and in particular took hammerings against the Ospreys, Clermont, Leinster and Ulster. They seemed to be slipping out of contention for the play-offs but they have had a recent revival beating Connacht and Munster in successive weeks to move back into fourth place.

The main man behind those two wins was 20 year old out-half Owen Williams who kicked 38 points in the two games. With Rhys Priestland out to long term injury, his normal replacement Aled Thomas didn't really nail the position down. So Williams was given his chance and he's very much taken it. He's a big fly-half in the Jonny Sexton mould and has a big boot to match. The Scarlets have traditionally been known for their attacking rugby but coach Simon Easterby seems to have adopted a tighter, more territorial gameplan recently in a bid to make them a harder team to beat. They've only scored one try in their last two games but they've won them both.

Easterby is only missing four players to the Welsh International squad so his team from last week is reasonably unaffected. He's got Aaron Shingler back to come in at blindside so the skipper Rob McCusker moves to number eight in place of Kieran Murphy. Josh Turnbull is a tough, awkward customer at openside and he completes a very useful back row. The front five that went so well last week against Munster are retained en masse so returning international hooker Matthew Rees has to be content with a place on the bench with Emyr Philips holding his place. Their South African trio of Jacobie Adriaanse, George Earle and Johan Snyman have strengthened the unit considerably and veteran prop Phil John is an awkward customer.

The only changes in the backs see Aled Thomas come in at full-back for Gareth Owen and winger Nick Reynolds replace Liam Williams, whose mouthy antics won't be missed by the RDS crowd. Gareth Maule has good memories of playing Leinster this season and he partners Adam Warren in midfield and Andy Fenby completes the three quarter line. Young half-backs Owen Williams and Aled Davies are once again given the reins.

For Leinster it's another one of those awkward weeks where you have doubts over which players will be available. As both Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden were training with the Ireland squad all week, they're both named on the bench this week in a team that shows ten changes (including two positional) from last week. Dave Kearney moves to full back so Andrew Conway and Fionn Carr come in on the wings. Eoin O'Malley and Andrew Goodman stay in the centre but there's a new half-back combination in Noel Reid and Isaac Boss. It's only Reid's second senior start for Leinster at out-half and though undoubtedly talented, his temperament and game management skills have been called into question. It's a massive game for him to prove his doubters wrong and at least he'll have experience either side of him in Boss and Goodman.

In the pack only Jack McGrath, Ben Marshall and Jordi Murphy are retained from the last day. Aaron Dundon and Michael Bent come into the front row and Bent in particular needs a good day in the scrum against Phil John. Leo Cullen returns to captain the team in the second row alongside Marshall, who had another impressive outing last week. In the back row last week's hat-trick hero Dominic Ryan switches to blindside to allow Shane Jennings to return at openside with Murphy retaining his place at number eight for the third week running. With Devin Toner in the Ireland squad, Tom Denton suspended and Quinn Roux, Kevin McLaughlin and Damien Browne injured, Leinster's second row resources are stretched to breaking point so Mark Flanagan, only recently back from injury himself, is named on the bench.

Leinster are the only team with a 100% home record in the league this season and after losing three times at the RDS last term, they'll be desperate to keep that record intact. Scarlets haven't won outside Wales since beating Munster in November. As usual when Pro12 teams also meet each other in the Heineken Cup, the amount of games means a certain amount of niggle builds up and it will be another feisty affair. With the teams named, Leinster are going to be up against it, and it will certainly be a tight, cagey game.

However, hopefully the home crowd can roar them on to an important win.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Teams Dave Kearney 15 Aled Thomas
Andrew Conway
14 Nick Reynolds
Eoin O'Malley
13 Gareth Maule
Andrew Goodman
12 Adam Warren
Fionn Carr 11 Andy Fenby
Noel Reid 10 Owen Williams
Isaac Boss 9 Aled Davies

Jack McGrath 1 Phil John
Aaron Dundon 2 Emyr Philips
Michael Bent 3 Jacobie Adriaanse
Leo Cullen (C) 4 George Earle
Ben Marshall
5 Johan Snyman
Dominic Ryan 6 Aaron Shingler
Shane Jennings 7 Josh Turnbull
Jordi Murphy 8 Rob McCusker (C)

Replacements Thomas Sexton 16 Matthew Rees
Jack O'Connell 17 Rhodri Jones
Jamie Hagan 18 Samson Lee
Mark Flanagan 19 Jake Ball
Rhys Ruddock 20 Sione Timani
John Cooney 21 Gareth Davies
Ian Madigan 22 Kristian Philips
Fergus McFadden 23 Dale Ford
Not considered
due to injury
Richardt Strauss,
Damien Browne,
Quinn Roux,
Colm O'Shea,
Adam Byrne,
Dan Leavy,
Edward Byrne,
Brian Byrne,
Isa Nacewa,
Heinke van der Merwe,
Kevin McLaughlin
  Jordan Williams,
Rhys Priestland,
Gareth Owen
Match Officials Referee: Marius Mitrea (FIR),
Assistant Referees: Michael Black, Jonathan Peak (both IRFU),
4th Official: Brian MacNeice (Leinster Rugby Referees),
5th Official: Simon Owens (Leinster Rugby Referees),
Dermot Moloney (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-02-22