Kearney ready for 'huge' showdown
Rob Kearney has warned his Leinster team-mates not to underestimate a somewhat depleted Ulster side at Ravenhill this evening as the champions look to take a step closer to securing a Dublin venue for their RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final as well as the final.
Five points clear of Glasgow Warriors at the top of the table with two games remaining and a healthy points difference in their favour, Matt O'Connor's team need five points from their meetings with Ulster and Edinburgh to ensure first place in the table.
Ulster, last year's beaten finalists, go into the match to mark the official opening of the redeveloped Ravenhill without a number of front-line players as they continue to count the cost of last month’s harrowing Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Saracens.
They are without Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and John Afoa for the penultimate regular season game, but coach Mark Anscombe has recalled Jared Payne after his suspension and he will face off against Brian O'Driscoll at outside-centre, while Dan Tuohy and Roger Wilson are also back.
O'Connor has been able to pick a strong side, with Kearney joined by his brother Dave and Springbok Zane Kirchner on the wing as O’Driscoll partners Gordon D'Arcy in the centre.
Up front, Marty Moore is preferred to Mike Ross at tighthead, while Shane Jennings starts ahead of Jordi Murphy alongside Rhys Ruddock and captain Jamie Heaslip in the back-row.
Despite their lengthy injury list, Kearney is expecting a huge challenge from Ulster at a highly charged Ravenhill.
"I don't know how depleted it is," the Lion said of the northerners' selection. "They're missing players, but so are we. I'd expect a huge game, the 2012 Heineken Cup final still resonates with them."
Beating Ulster would put Leinster in a very strong position going into the final round of games, but it would also put a title rival’s chances of winning the trophy in real jeopardy, with Anscombe’s side facing Munster away in their final game of the season.
"They need to win this because otherwise they'll struggle to make top four. Ravenhill is opening. So throw all those factors in and I'd expect a big game. They've been the form side in Ireland this year, without question. So you'd have to see them as clear favourites," said Kearney.
"Their back three is strong, but we'd back our back three as well. Tommy (Bowe) has an enormous strike rate – even when he doesn't get many touches, he'll still come away with tries. It will put pressure on our kicking game."
Meanwhile, up-and-coming Wexford tighthead Tadhg Furlong has collected his Bank of Ireland player of the month award for February and March.
Voting for the April award, between Jamie Heaslip, Noel Reid and Cian Healy, is now open via @bankofireland twitter using #boirugby.
Irish Independent Supplement