Isn’t it incredible to still have rugby during these uncertain times? It’s such a great thing to look forward each week, and while we have so many other restrictions and strong guidelines on what we should be doing, rugby is the outlet that allows us all to both disconnect from the harsh reality of the global pandemic and enjoy the sport we all love. The Pro14 is taking a different route to the final this season, there will be no semi final qualifier or a standard semi final for the winners of each Conference. Instead, the winners of each Conference will automatically qualify for the final. The season has also been shortened which means the final will take place in March, leaving all teams with fewer games to rack up points. Not an ideal situation for any team involved, well unless you’re talking about Munster who are very much in the driver’s seat in Conference B. Still, we have a lot to be thankful for and while we have it, bring it on!!
This evening’s game against Ulster certainly has a familiar feel to it. It almost feels like a league final since the result will have a huge impact on the rest of the season. Given last week’s loss to Connacht at the RDS, Leinster are on the back foot in Conference A, 10 points adrift Ulster who have the top spot with 6 games remaining in the shortened regular season. Of course, Leinster have 2 games in hand, one away to Munster and the other away to Scarlets (both games were postponed initially). Not the most straightforward of games in hand but you can be sure Leinster will be targeting both given their immense importance.
So, as we prepare for what I hope is a huge battle at the RDS tonight, you can see why this game is of such massive significance and feels like a final. Ulster are unbeaten so far this season, 10 wins from 10. Leinster have 7 out of 8 wins, their first loss in 26 games came last weekend. As a Leinster supporter living in Galway, I’ve been regularly reminded of that loss all week so I’m going to take this opportunity to move VERY SWIFTLY on. This weekend we have another derby and a chance to regain a little bit of control in Conference A by closing in on Ulster and setting up the final games of the season nicely.
Here’s the team selection for Leinster:
15. Hugo Keenan (22)
14. Jordan Larmour (52)
13. Ross Byrne (93)
12. Robbie Henshaw (51)
11. Dave Kearney (157)
10. Johnny Sexton (169) CAPTAIN
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (97)
1. Cian Healy (224)
2. Seán Cronin (188)
3. Andrew Porter (69)
4. Scott Fardy (67)
5. James Ryan (43)
6. Rhys Ruddock (182)
7. Josh van der Flier (87)
8. Caelan Doris (35)
16. James Tracy (119)
17. Ed Byrne (60)
18. Michael Bent (150)
19. Ross Molony (104)
20. Jack Conan (96)
21. Luke McGrath (137)
22. Harry Byrne (17)
23. Jimmy O’Brien (27)
A lot of first choice internationals and big guns are back in the lineup. Some long awaited returnees include Larmour who will start on the wing, Keenan at full back and Doris at flanker. Unsurprising is that we see Ross Byrne in the starting 15, however it is very surprising is that we see him starting in the 12 jersey with Sexton starting at 10. It remains to see if maybe Sexton will be used for pulling the strings and dictating the territorial battle, while Byrne taking kicks at goal and plays the first/second playmaker role. Either way, it’ll be an interesting makeup to the team, and maybe one that has Ulster either licking their lips or scratching their heads. A third out half awaits on the bench in the form of Harry Byrne, another up and coming 10 who will be very much looking to put his name in race for Irish selection next month.
It’s great to see Cronin starting as it’s generally a given to see him on the bench anytime that he’s selected. Maybe Cullen is looking at putting more faith in him following a couple of games where our lineout has been malfunctioning again. Also, given his explosive pace and skill around the field, he’s a great player to have from the first whistle. James Tracy will on the bench to add more experience if brought into the fray.
Gibson-Park has been given the nod to start ahead of McGrath who’s on the bench. Both players have discovered some really great form recently and are reminiscent of the Boss/Reddan era in terms of the skillsets that they bring to the squad.
All in all, it’s a very strong selection, one that signifies Cullen & Co’s intention; win this match!
Where the game will be won
This is a very tricky game. If Leinster win, they restore some pride in themselves after losing at home last week, and also put themselves in a much better chance of regaining the top spot in the Conference. If we lose this game, it will add immense pressure on Leinster and raise a lot of doubts about their chances of lifting a forth Pro14 trophy in a row. This is a game where champions are potentially created or cast away.
Ulster know that Leinster have the measure of them and know how to win this match. Whenever Ulster try to play an expansive game against Leinster, they generally come out second best. Ulster’s primary option is to hold onto possession and play a territorial game, keeping the ball in Leinster’s half as much as possible, and then hope for Leinster to make mistakes. They may also deploy a rush defense which appears to disrupt Leinster, much like we saw last weekend. However, Leinster has selected a very strong pack which will be capable of steamrolling Ulster’s if they are allowed build up momentum. I feel that Ulster will opt for a forward dominated game and will hope to win turnovers and penalties in the ruck to keep the scoreboard ticketing over.
I think Leinster will opt for a varied attack, primarily aimed at scoring tries to not only secure a win, but secure a much needed bonus point. Leinster are under no illusions about the mountain they have to climb in order to knock Ulster off the summit so they will be looking to inflict maximum damage. Of course, winning the match will be step one in Leinster’s mind, but getting maximising points and denying a bonus point for Ulster will be step 2.
Ulster will need a rock solid defense in order to hold off a Leinster onslaught while Leinster will need to maintain strong discipline to keep Ulster from creating daylight on the scoreboard through 3-pointers.
A very tough game is in store, one that will define both team’s season. It really does have the makeup of a dress rehearsal final. Like the cream will always rise to the top, it may take a while for Leinster to regain top spot in Conference A, but I think Leinster will win tonight and take a bite out of Ulster’s lead. I also don’t think Leinster will lose another game in the regular season but we’ll get to those games over the next few weeks!
Cheeky prediction is that Dave Kearney will score twice in the first half.
Leinster 37 – Ulster 28
Match day result: Leinster 24 – Ulster 12