Leinster load up big guns for shot at last chance saloon
LEINSTER's season comes down to tonight's trip up the M1. Win and they keep their slim chances of making the Guinness Pro12 play-offs alive, lose and it's a pair of dead rubbers to round off a disappointing league campaign.
Five days after going the distance against Toulon in Marseille, Matt O'Connor loads up his big guns and goes again, making just four changes to his line-up and retaining his Ireland starters, with Ian Madigan among those dropping to the bench.
Ulster are lying in wait at Kingspan Stadium, fresh from a 13-day rest since their win over Connacht and motivated by the prospect of doing for the hopes of the team who have routinely ended their trophy bids in recent seasons.
They would relish putting an end Leinster's campaign.
With no European rugby to distract them from their Pro12 ambitions, they have put themselves in a strong position with three games to go, albeit with the toughest run-in of any of the top five.
Given that the final is in Belfast, they know they'll never have a better chance and their early injury woes have cleared at just the right time. Against Connacht, they weren't perfect but struck when the opportunity presented itself and have dangerous runners all over the field.
They'll know that Leinster will be dangerous, stung by the manner of their defeat to Toulon and resentful of finding themselves in the unusual position of having their backs against the wall.
Whether O'Connor's men can raise their game for the second time in such a short period of time is a major question and he'll be hoping that the introduction of Zane Kirchner, Gordon D'Arcy, Richardt Strauss and Dominic Ryan can freshen his team enough to be able to dominate Ulster.
"The physical bit is probably not as significant as the mental bit," the Australian said. "There was 100 minutes of pretty intense stuff (against Toulon) but there wasn't huge ball in play.
"It's going to be a pretty physical battle so the freshness will be pretty important. Mentally is the real challenge - making sure we take the positives out of the good bits that were on display on Sunday and try make sure we are a little bit better in those key moments that probably cost us the result."
With Joe Schmidt watching on, there will also be a World Cup incentive for the Irish hopefuls with Chris Henry's battle with Sean O'Brien perhaps the most mouth-watering and also the most important.
The duo have rarely been fit at the same time since the New Zealander took over as Ireland coach and this is a rare opportunity to assess them when both are firing.
Elsewhere, Iain Henderson gets another chance to show what he can do in the No 6 jersey, while Dan Tuohy's battle with Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner should be tasty and Strauss gets a chance to take on Rory Best after a frustrating Six Nations which he spent training with Ireland without getting any pitch-time.
Ulster's backline play has been far more potent than Leinster's in recent times and, if they can gain front-foot ball, then their strike-runners can do damage.
It will be interesting to see how Ben Te'o handles Jared Payne's subtle touches in the outside-centre channel, while D'Arcy will be desperate to impress.
Paddy Jackson has shown signs of real promise in recent weeks and his ability to identify mismatches against Connacht showed a real sharpness, and with Ruan Pienaar alongside him to help with game-management, Ulster would appear to have the edge at half-back.
It will come down to the close exchanges and Leinster will be looking for their tight five to dominate the scrum as they did in Marseille, while Toner will be looking to disrupt Best's throw after Connacht had some success in that department.
If Leinster can control the set-piece and establish field-position, then they'll look to go through the phases looking for soft-shoulders, using Cian Healy and O'Brien before unleashing Te'o and Luke Fitzgerald.
Henry's ability to get in over the ball will be key for Ulster and if he can win the battle on the ground, then Ulster will be on their way to the final four.
While Leinster's season is on the line, Ulster hold all the aces. At home and against a team battling fatigue and form, they should have enough.
Ulster - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (C), W Herbst, D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe, I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S McCloskey.
Leinster - R Kearney; Z Kirchner, B Te'o, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; D Ryan, S O'Brien, J Heaslip (capt). Reps: S Cronin, J McGrath, T Furlong, B Marshall, J Murphy, E Reddan, I Madigan, D Fanning.
Ref - J Lacey (IRFU)
Ulster v Leinster, Live, Sky/BBC2, 7.35