| 14.8°C Dublin

Blues' appetite can conquer Cardiff injury fear-factor


Hard as they have tried to disguise the fact, tonight's Magners League semi-final at the RDS (7.05) serves as a tasty hors d'oeuvre for Leinster before their Heineken Cup final main course in Cardiff the following weekend.

For Ulster, it is the Last Supper.

Lose tonight and Ulster's encouraging season comes to an abrupt end and they will travel back north with the doggy bag of qualification for the knockout stages of both tournaments to sustain them over the summer.

Of course, their overwhelming desire is to dine out again at the end of the month in the Magners League final, but the odds are stacked against them tonight, with Leinster rated 2/9 favourites and Ulster out at 10/3.

This is based on a number of factors. Firstly, Leinster have a full-strength squad -- bar long-term injury victim Rob Kearney -- which allows coach Joe Schmidt to give winger Fergus McFadden, scrum-half Isaac Boss and flanker Shane Jennings the opportunity to make their case for inclusion in the team to face Northampton.

All three have produced fine performances this season and can hardly be expected to weaken the side, which makes their battles with Shane Horgan, Eoin Reddan and Kevin McLaughlin respectively all the more fascinating in the run-in to next week's clash.

Then there is Leinster's home record. The 'D4TRESS' banners will be on prominent display but, as well as paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the stereotype of the province's well-heeled origins, they also reflect an RDS winning record that stretches back 12 matches and nearly 12 months to their defeat in last year's final against the Ospreys.

And finally, there is the sense of belief and all-round quality in the Leinster make-up. Ability to secure set-piece possession and dog it out up front ... check.

Capacity to unlock defences out wide ... check.

Defensive solidity ... check.

Accuracy from placed kicks ... check.

And finally, discipline ... check the low penalty counts.

Throw in a stronger bench and the fact that Brian O'Driscoll (right) will want to mark his 150th Leinster appearance (and Cian Healy his 50th) in suitable style and it tots up to a pretty grim scenario if your favourite anthem is 'Stand Up For The Ulstermen'.

At the same time, Brian McLaughlin's men are not about to roll over.

That 'no tomorrow' factor will work in their favour as, however hard they try to suppress it, Leinster's players will have the dread of injury in the back of their minds which can translate into hesitancy. The best approach in this scenario is to go at it Richardt Strauss-style but that bald-headed attitude is easier said than done in these circumstances.

Ulster are without some heavy-hitters. No BJ Botha to attack the Leinster scrum. No Stephen Ferris to bish and bash or Willie Faloon to provide Jennings with a natural openside adversary and no Paddy Wallace or Andrew Trimble to provide international experience in the back-line.

However, McLaughlin still has men who can trouble Leinster. If Pedrie Wannenburg gets his gander up, he will be a source of front-foot ball while his fellow South African Johann Muller should oversee a decent supply of line-out possession.

Ruan Pienaar and Ian Humphreys present considerable running threats from half-back, while Nevin Spence and Craig Gilroy have pace and evasion out wide.

But an Ulster victory would require a sub-par Leinster performance, notably in defence, and it is hard to see that happening -- regardless of the psychological pitfalls.

For all their stunning play this season, Leinster have won nothing yet and for the superstitious among their supporters, Friday the 13th may introduce a sense of foreboding.

That should be quelled by the sight of Leo Cullen leading the team onto the pitch. Leinster's captain is entering the final few laps of an accomplished career and having the unique distinction of leading his province to a Magners League-Heineken Cup double is a considerable spur.

It is safe to expect a full-blooded contest and one that may not be decided by more than a converted try -- but also a Leinster victory that will whet their appetites for next week.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; S O'Brien, S Jennings, J Heaslip. Reps: J Harris-Wright, H van der Merwe, S Wright, D Toner, K McLaughlin, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Kearney.

ULSTER -- A D'Arcy; C Gilroy, D Cave, N Spence, S Danielli; I Humphreys, R Pienaar; T Court, R Best (capt), D Fitzpatrick; J Muller, T Barker; P Wannenburg, C Henry, R Diack. Reps: A Kyriacou, P McAllister, J Cronin, N McComb, TJ Anderson, P Marshall, I Whitten, C Gaston.

REF -- G Clancy (Ireland).

Leinster v Ulster

Live, TG4, 7.05

Irish Independent