Leinster can survive the 'carnage'
Schmidt predicts physical derby as battered Blues make seven changes in push for play-off spot
Published 16/04/2011 | 05:00
Joe Schmidt was asked this week to describe the difficulty of competing on two fronts. "Carnage," he smiled through gritted teeth.
Still, he's been luckier than most. Seven changes here and Leinster still look formidable as they hungrily hunt down a second knock-out semi-final berth; it's not quite win or bust but Schmidt would require unwitting favours elsewhere should they slip up.
"Yes, that's the same attitude from the players' point of view," confirms Sean O'Brien. "It's a knockout game, the business end of the season and where we want to be. Every game is a must win and it would give us the best chance of getting a home semi-final."
Despite the notable absence of his preferred midfield, neither Brian O'Driscoll nor Gordon D'Arcy are thought to be in any long-term jeopardy.
That is also the case with O'Brien, much to the relief of the several Ulster men upon whom he trampled gleefully in Ravenhill earlier this season, although he may make the replacements bench.
Isa Nacewa would probably refuse any invitation to pave way for a stand-in so he remains in situ -- mercifully for those in his thrall -- but most welcome is the return to full fitness of Shane Jennings, whose role could be pivotal in his side's twin title bid.
Heinke van der Merwe and Stan Wright take their places in the front-row with Devin Toner starting at second-row alongside skipper Leo Cullen.
Isaac Boss will make his 25th appearance of the season and his 100th league appearance in all (spanning his Ulster and Leinster careers) with Jonathan Sexton outside.
Eoin O'Malley lines up at centre alongside Fergus McFadden, with Leinster's top try-scorer in the Magners League Shane Horgan ( five tries in 13 league games) continuing in the back three alongside Luke Fitzgerald -- desperately seeking Zen-like reassurance -- and Nacewa.
Ulster's league run-in is trickier than Leinster's and, coupled with a one-day-less turnaround following starkly different European emotions, the visitors will be eager to demonstrate that a pall does not shadow their attempts to book a money-spinning home semi-final.
Brian McLaughlin has been forced to make two changes. Second-row Johann Muller and wing Simon Danielli sustained injuries in the Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Northampton, so Tim Barker and Craig Gilroy are promoted from the bench as direct replacements.
Muller received a dead leg and Danielli picked up a shoulder injury so McLaughlin chose not to risk them. Neil McComb and Conor Gaston replace Barker and Gilroy on the bench and are joined there by Darren Cave, who returns at the expense of Ian Whitten.
Aside from the points race, there are a number of intriguing sideshows to tickle the fancies of those with more than mere parochial interest.
The keenest focus will be in midfield: Paddy Wallace faces pressure from Fergus McFadden, particularly after the latter was unluckily jettisoned in the Six Nations, while Nevin Spence and Eoin O'Malley may yet figure in Declan Kidney's World Cup warm-up plans.
"They have quality across the board," says Schmidt of Ulster. "I would expect from them a really good set-piece, particularly the line-out. The back-row has been really competitive as well.
"Pedrie Wannenburg is a big ball-carrier. He gives them go-forward. He's difficult to stop. Robbie Diack has been good for them, Willie Faloon has been good for them, so the back-row will be one of the good battles.
"Through the midfield, with Paddy Wallace there, his experience, his ability as a ball-player, as well as Nevin Spence, who's a very good, direct runner, he's got a very strong fend, a strong upper body -- he's another really promising player.
"Then you've Ian Humphreys to run the game and find a fair bit of space, and Ruan Pienaar to run the guys in front of him as well.
"So yeah, I just think we're up for a massive battle. I think as long as both teams aren't too battered -- you might get a really good first 40 or 50! Maybe they'll tire in the end. I hope they do anyway! I can't see there being a massive amount between the two teams."
Leinster's only defeat in their last five matches in all competitions was the narrow loss to Munster at the start of the month and they will be defending a formidable fortress -- they have won their last 24 home regular-season games in the Magners League.
Ulster have won their last six Magners League encounters since their slender reversal at Ospreys in February, but were there an Interprovincial championship, they would be propping up the table -- on a -14 points difference behind Connacht in case you're interested -- having failed to beat a fellow Irish province this season.
Leinster have won five of their last six games against Ulster and the northern province have not won a game in Dublin since a 26-15 victory over Leinster at Donnybrook in the Interprovincial Championship on August 13, 1999.
That was merely months after their seismic breakthrough in the Heineken Cup; preceding a fallow decade where they exported this perennial underachievement in Dublin to assorted European destinations.
They did manage to break that particular cycle of heartbreak this term and kindred spirit Rory McIlroy's endeavours this week in Malaysia hint at the renewed resourcefulness of the Ulster mentality.
However, although Ulster have already rewritten one piece of history this season, don't expect any further alterations to this particular dog-eared script.
einster -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, E O'Malley, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, S Wright, L Cullen (capt), D Toner, K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: J Harris-Wright, C Healy, M Ross, N Hines, S O'Brien/D Ryan, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Kearney.
Ulster -- A D'Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, P Wallace, C Gilroy; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), BJ Botha, T Barker, D Tuohy, R Diack, C Henry, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, B Young, N McComb, W Faloon, P Marshall, D Cave, C Gaston.
Ref -- Pascal Gauzere (FRA)
Leinster v Ulster,
Live, RTE 2/BBC NI, 8.0