Leinster gambles to pay off as stakes rise
Stronger scrum and bench give O'Connor's men the edge as Ireland trio left out of line-up
It's natural that the closer a team gets to the winning podium, the higher the stakes. Nobody likes to lose a semi-final; it's the ultimate bum steer.
Even though Ulster got trounced by a Leinster side at the peak of their powers in the 2012 Heineken Cup final, at least they could say that they were there.
History may not remember runners-up but its memory completely wipes those who suffer elimination at the penultimate stage; reaching the final offers a team something to achieve after a 23-game toil; losing a semi-final means it's holiday time.
And so, as the stakes rise, teams must decide how much they can afford to gamble – often the greater risk is in not bothering to take one in the first place. Others may prefer to throw the dice away, rather than throw them at all.
Tonight's semi-finalists know they must be bold in battle; Leinster, to justify favouritism as they seek to maintain the unyielding expectations of demanding supporters who have become used to success.
Ulster's destination is the same but their journey more tortuous; they have lost six of their last nine knockout games, including two finals and a semi-final to tonight's opponents.
Many justifiably belittle their aspirations to dine at the top table until they can see the glint of silver dangling around their necks.
Whatever happens, it is destined to be a firecracker and, hopefully, one that finishes with 15 men a side.
"There's lot of rivalry over the last period with two really good squads who are hungry to win something," says Leinster coach Matt O'Connor. "From that end, it should be a great occasion."
Each team's selection, on the face of it, embraces courage in certain aspects; others may decry that they veer towards folly should certain choices backfire.
The theatre of combat will arrive at conclusions of certainty; for now, we can only offer conjecture.
First, Leinster. In benching Sean O'Brien, only recently returned from five months out, O'Connor has predicted that his side should hold sway at the breakdown before the Tullow man is unleashed.
Less certain is his faith in Quinn Roux, a pin-up for those who sneer at the IRFU's rampant policy of naturalising overseas players, who plays second-row due to infirmity elsewhere; Leo Cullen is trusted only to finish what could be his final match.
Rhys Ruddock could have moved up the batting order, allowing Jordi Murphy, omitted entirely from the panel, to buttress the back-row. Within the selection, we can view a certain fear of Ulster's formidable line-out.
O'Connor's faith in his scrum is more robust; hence Martin Moore cements his burgeoning status as the go-to man on the tighthead side, eclipsing Mike Ross.
Behind the scrum, O'Connor could be hedging or betting; it depends on perspective. But retaining Jimmy Gopperth makes sense, inasmuch as Ian Madigan's form has not put pressure on the Kiwi for any sustained period of late.
Eoin Reddan's return should, presuming the groundhogs are effective, ensure the type of quick ball too often denied the backline this season.
That backline does, of course, retain the Rolls Royce sheen of old but it has spluttered like a Hillman Hunter for much of the season, bar one outstanding evening in Northampton.
Will this be the night they catch fire?
Ulster cannot afford to be cautious either. If anything, they have been more audacious in announcing their roster, acknowledging that, if they are to triumph, they must seize the moment.
Pairing Darren Cave with Jared Payne – another of those pesky foreigners, but he's destined to replace Brian O'Driscoll, so that's okay then – is an interesting, some would say brave, others foolhardy call.
The foolhardiness would seem to exist in shoehorning Craig Gilroy at full-back for such an intense occasion; Leinster will rain down a few early bombs to test his mettle and fortitude.
Testing players' fitness is equally risky but, when Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar are involved, the chance is always worth taking.
If both can produce an hour of their supreme best, it will mean that their team are well within a shout of victory. Should either man falter, the prospect of defeat increases exponentially.
Ulster look light in the scrum, on paper at least, and the front-row will have to produce beyond their superlative efforts this term to adequately compensate for the loss of first-choice duo John Afoa and Tom Court.
Leinster's bench seems to have more of an impact, too; the luxury of excusing Murphy from duty heightens this feeling and James McKinney's presence there for Ulster compounds the sense of unease around Pienaar's shoulder.
Aside from their home advantage, Leinster's familiarity with the business of winning knockout matches cannot be ignored and it supports much of their five-point favouritism with the bookies.
Three successive defeats to the Blues in semi-finals or finals – two of them here – in each of the past three seasons bears a sense of inevitable doom if you're an Ulster fan, but offers an air of buoyant confidence for the Leinster faithful.
Leinster's Cullen tries to downplay the latter emotion.
"Away from home they generally play a pretty strong kicking game but they have got guys who are very good at chasing," he notes.
"You see some of the performances they have had away this year, away in Leicester, away in Montpellier are two of the most impressive of all.
"They beat us here last year as well in the regular round of the league. Coming here doesn't hold any fears for them."
Both sides will need such courage to combat their fears; Ulster more so. If they produce their best and Leinster slip into average fare, as both sides have done this term, the northerners can advance.
In truth, it is difficult to place too much faith – or one's money – on either side with so much uncertainty clouding the air.
Better to trust instinct. In that department, Leinster's always shines through.
Leinster – R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Gopperth, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Moore; D Toner, Q Roux; R Ruddock, S Jennings, J Heaslip capt. Reps: A Dundon, J McGrath, M Ross, L Cullen, S O'Brien, I Boss, I Madigan, Z Kirchner.
Ulster – C Gilroy; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, A Trimble, P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, R Lutton; J Muller capt, I Henderson; R Diack, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, A Macklin, D Tuohy, S Doyle, P Marshall, J McKinney, L Marshall.
REF – L Hodges (WRU)
LEINSTER V ULSTER,
LIVE, RTE 2, 7.0