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Leinster Rugby vs Ulster Rugby
Guinness Pro12 Round 8
RDS Arena, Dublin,
Friday, 27th November 2015, 19:35

Television: Live - TG4, BBC2 NI

These are tough times for Leinster rugby. After the defeat last week to Bath, they've now lost their opening two games in Europe for the first time since 1996. That was only the second season of the European Cup, but it was the first season that English clubs participated and in those days it did seem that the Irish provinces would be perennial also-rans. There was the odd big win at home like Leinster beating Leicester or Munster beating Wasps but just qualifying from the pool was tough enough, never mind winning the competition. It all changed in 1999 with Ulster's incredible win, albeit in a season where the English clubs boycotted the tournament. By the next season, Munster had gone all the way to the final, even with the English clubs involved, and between those two achievements there was now real belief in Irish rugby that they could compete with the best teams in Europe. It took a number of years and a few heartbreaks along the way but eventually the success arrived with five Heineken Cups in seven seasons between 2006 and 2012.

That year in 2012 when Leinster and Ulster contested the Heineken Cup final in Twickenham may well have been the pinnacle of Irish provincial rugby but it may well be seen in the future as the beginning of the end too. Sick of seeing the Irish clubs succeed, the English Clubs made their move off the field and they nearly tore European rugby apart in the process. In the end they got what they wanted, i.e. more money, and we're seeing the fruits of that now. Though it's still early days in the competition the English clubs are looking stronger than they have in years, even in relation to the free-spending French clubs. For the first time in years all six Aviva Premiership clubs won their pool matches last weekend. By contrast all six of the Pro12 teams playing last weekend lost theirs. So it's tough times all round, not just for Leinster.

It's somewhat ironic that we find the two teams that filled Twickenham three and a half years ago playing tomorrow evening. Ulster's position in Europe is not quite as dire as Leinster's as their first match away to Oyonnax was postponed, but their defeat at home to Saracens last week was nearly as deflating as Leinster's home defeat to Wasps. It was a curious game as Ulster had led 9-0 at half-time and when Sarries had a man sent to the sin-bin on 55 minutes, Ulster still led 9-5 and looked in decent shape. But Saracens utterly dominated the last quarter of the match and ended up leaving with a four-try bonus point, which was very impressive considering the wet conditions. Ulster's Pro12 form has also been mixed, they've won their home games well but their only win on the road was away to the Dragons. They too are getting used to a new head coach in Les Kiss and they could badly use the boost of an inter-pro win tomorrow night.

Kiss has made four changes to the team which lost last week. Kyle McCall, Robbie Diack and Sean Reidy come into the pack and the in-form Peter Nelson is named at fullback in place of Louis Ludik. For Leinster, it's all change once again with eight personnel changes plus one positional switch from last week. Isa Nacewa starts again at full-back, after Rob Kearney was ruled out with a tight hamstring and Zane Kirchner comes in to start on the right wing with Luke Fitzgerald switched from centre to the left wing. After playing out-half and full back in his last two games Ian Madigan is selected at inside centre this time alongside Ben Te'o, who was one of Leinster's better players last week. Johnny Sexton retains the number ten jersey but this week he's partnered by Luke McGrath, who did well when he came on last week. With both Eoin Reddan and Isaac Boss struggling for form in the autumn on their careers, McGrath will never have a better chance to establish himself as starting scrum-half but he needs to cut out the wild passing that has slowed his development so far.

After the scrum was obliterated over in Bath last week, perhaps the most welcome change in the pack is the return of Mike McCarthy in the engine room. He's not the most fashionable of players but his work-rate is always top-notch and the scrum is always better when he's there. The two starting props from last week, Mike Ross and Cian Healy are omitted from the squad, so Jack McGrath moves up from the bench and Tadhg Furlong is promoted from the A team to start. Sean Cronin and Devin Toner retain their places and they'll be determined to improve the fortunes of the lineout which has also been a problem this season. The final change sees the welcome promotion of Josh van der Flier, who added a lot when he was introduced from the bench last week. Rhys Ruddock and skipper Jamie Heaslip complete the back row.

Leinster's performance against Bath was at least an improvement on the debacle against Wasps and they could have won the game with better execution and decision-making in the last ten minutes. However the nightmare at the scrum was ultimately their downfall and truth be told, Bath played the better rugby and deserved their win. The team did at least show some of the fight that had been missing the week before.

Both teams will come in to tomorrow's match hurting after a difficult week and they'll want to take their frustrations out on each other. It could make for a fairly tetchy match for referee John Lacey to handle. In the end Leinster's need for redemption may just swing it for the home side.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Ulster Rugby
Teams Isa Nacewa
15 Peter Nelson
Zane Kirchner 14 Andrew Trimble
Ben Te'o
13 Darren Cave
Ian Madigan 12 Stuart McCloskey
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Craig Gilroy
Johnny Sexton 10 Paddy Jackson
Luke McGrath
9 Ruan Pienaar

Jack McGrath 1 Kyle McCall
Sean Cronin 2 Rory Best (C)
Tadhg Furlong 3 Wiehahn Herbst
Devin Toner 4 Iain Henderson
Mike McCarthy
5 Dan Tuohy
Rhys Ruddock6 Robbie Diack
Josh van der Flier
7 Sean Reidy
Jamie Heaslip (C) 8 Nick Williams

Replacements James Tracy 16 Rob Herring
Peter Dooley
17 Andrew Warwick
Martin Moore 18 Ricky Lutton
Ross Molony 19 Roger Wilson
Dominic Ryan 20
Chris Henry
Eoin Reddan21 Paul Marshall
Noel Reid 22 Ian Humphreys
Garry Ringrose 23 Louis Ludik

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jack Conan,
Nick McCarthy,
Edward Byrne,
Mick Kearney,
Aaron Dundon,
Richardt Strauss,
Sean O'Brien,
Hayden Triggs,
Isa Nacewa,
Dave Kearney,
Fergus McFadden,
Rob Kearney

Jared Payne,
Tommy Bowe,
Stuart Olding,
Luke Marshall
Officials Referee: John Lacey (IRFU),
Assistant Referees: Andy Brace, Olly Hodges (both IRFU),
Citing Commissioner: Eugene Ryan (IRFU),
TMO: Dermot Moloney (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2015-11-27