We are all guilty of overthinking or over stressing about something that may happen, only to eventually realise that everything turned out ok and we needn’t have worried. Although this is normal and part of life, it’s something which we all should manage in order to put the right things into perspective and rationalise perceived challenges more effectively.
It wasn’t long ago that we were all wondering if and how Leinster might be able to retain their top spot in Conference A. Leinster had just lost to Connacht, and Ulster were unbeaten all season and 15 points clear at the top of the table, albeit with 3 games in hand for Leinster due to postponed games. Some felt that it was too much of an uphill battle for the boys in blue to get back to the peak of form. Then the Pro14 announced that there would be no semi-final stage in the competition this season, meaning that the top finishers from each conference would go straight through to the final. This was disastrous news for fans, and I’m sure very worrying for the Leinster branch given the position they found themselves in. Three postponed games meant that there would be less recovery time for the players given a more hectic schedule, plus much less room for error in that they would essentially need to win all 3 games in hand to be in a chance to compete for that top spot. Add in the mix that of the 3 games, we would have to head away to Scarlets and Munster to pick up points. We also needed to face a very in form Ulster at the RDS which as you can imagine was pretty much a must win game. An immense task, a real test of character for Leinster awaited, and of course an incredible opportunity to turn a corner and lay down a marker in the disrupted season.
Well, hindsight is a great thing, but we needn’t have worried. Leinster first took on Ulster at the RDS, a very important start to the battle of Conference A. Leinster came out 24-12 winners. They then backed it up with a win away to Scarlets and then another win at Thomond Park. All of a sudden, Leinster are back in that familiar position on the table, and haven’t lost a game since! On 1st January, Leinster were 15 points adrift. Now on 3rd March, we’re 6 points clear at the top. This weekend, we face off against Ulster again, but this time on their on patch where they will be looking for both revenge and another chance to threaten the balance of power in the conference. It is probably as close to a final in terms of what is at stake. If Leinster win with either a bonus point or deny Ulster a bonus point, Leinster’s destiny will be very much in their hands as they will have only two more games to play, one away to Zebre next week, and then the final game at home against Ospreys. If we lose, and even if Ulster get a bonus point and we get nothing, we’ll still be top with 1 point. This will put some pressure on Leinster as they would need to secure wins in their final fixtures or at least one bonus point win. Make no mistake, Ulster know this and they will be baying for blood tomorrow evening!
Are you worried?
Ulster, at least on paper, looks stronger on the team sheet given the resources they have available to them while the
Leinster Irish internationals are away at Irish camp for the 6 Nations. The experience they have in their squad will ensure that there are leaders aplenty to guide the team through the game. Leinster’s young guns have shown massive resilience and hunger for game time this season by performing so strongly while the more seasoned players are away. Some of the performances from these young lads are already posing qusetions to the coaching team regarding if they are in a position to cement a starting stop on the team sheet regardless of the Irish international players being available. Take Scott Penny for example, 9 tries in 8 games this season so far, he’s probably Leinster’s strongest forward at the moment.
That being said, one player doesn’t make a team. Cohesion in the squad has been mixed but overall has produced the desired results. Here is the match day squad from Cullen & Co.
15. Max O’Reilly (4)
14. Cian Kelleher (23)
13. Jimmy O’Brien (30)
12. Rory O’Loughlin (76)
11. Dave Kearney (161)
10. Ross Byrne (96)
9. Luke McGrath (142) CAPTAIN
1. Ed Byrne (63)
2. James Tracy (122)
3. Michael Bent (152)
4. Devin Toner (258)
5. Scott Fardy (72)
6. Rhys Ruddock (184)
7. Josh van der Flier (90)
8. Scott Penny (22)
16. Seán Cronin (192)
17. Peter Dooley (87)
18. Thomas Clarkson (7)
19. Ross Molony (108)
20. Josh Murphy (42)
21. Rowan Osborne (8)
22. Jamie Osborne (3)
23. Jack Dunne (12)
The starting 15 is very strong considering the number of players unavailable. Great to see Ross Byrne start at 10 and Devin Toner return in the pack. Rhys Rudduck has been in amazing form, one of Leinster’s standout players this season, let’s hope he brings that explosive power to the game tomorrow. The bench is where we look a little weaker, especially in the replacement backs. A big performance from the young lads on the bench will be crucial, a lot will ride on the last 25 minutes of this match once the majority are sprung from the bench. Great to see Cronin back in though, he is always a great impact sub and more times than not is a try scorer in the latter stages of our games.
Ulster look fully locked and loaded in their starting 15, having not been majorly impacted by the 6 Nations call-ups. It’s always so strange seeing some great Leinster lads in their squad against us; Cooney, Madigan, O’Connor, O’Sullivan, and of course their captain Jordi Murphy. They’ll be looking for a scalp against their home club. Marcel Coetzee is back from injury and on the bench so he’ll be a massive threat in the second half if/when he is brought on. He was enjoying incredible form before his injury and was key in getting Ulster’s forwards going and creating scoring opportunities. Leinster must keep an eye on him!
Where the game will be won
Cool heads will be required in this game. Knowing that it’s a must win game, I feel that Ulster will bring a lot of intensity and will look to overpower Leinster with an attacking onslaught from minute 1. Ulster will draw on past disappointments and lessons learned from their last defeat, and I’m sure the Pro14 final last September in order to identify and capitalise on any chinks in Leinster’s armour. As a result, defense will be key for Leinster, an area of their game which has been quite strong throughout the season, but far from impenetrable. Although Leinster is the best defensive team at the moment, conceding only 24 tries, Ulster are not far behind, conceded 27 so far this season. This will most likely result in fewer tries being scored so the 10 that brings his A-game off the tee could become crucial to the outcome.
Expect an aerial bombardment from both sides looking to control territory and and field position. In this scenario, a sturdy and confident back line will be needed as one little slip or dropped ball could result in disaster.
Leinster hasn’t won away to Ulster since 2018. It’s a very tough place to go and get a win, especially when the home team have so much to gain and potentially so much to lose. With a lot on the line for the home side comes hunger and drive, but also a lot of pressure and stress on the squad to get things right and go their way for the 80 minutes.
Leinster have a huge amount to gain for this match too, a win will pretty much secure their place in the Pro14 final, and even a losing bonus point will set them up very well too.
At the end of the day, the team with that has the coolest of heads and a massive hunger to succeed will win. Given the form of both teams over the last few weeks, I think Leinster have the edge on Ulster and their form will only be stronger for this game. I don’t see a cricket score being notched up but I expect a solid peformance from the boys in blue that will be enough to deny the red hand another opportunity for glory.
Ulster 18 – Leinster 25
Match day result: Ulster 19 – Leinster 38