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Wannenburg desperate to give home fans perfect parting gift against Leinster

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Pedrie Wannenburg. Photo: Sportsfile

Pedrie Wannenburg. Photo: Sportsfile

Pedrie Wannenburg. Photo: Sportsfile

Valediction at Ravenhill -- but also, perhaps, the portents of even greater things to come for Ulster.

Local supporters have struggled to identify with their director of rugby David Humphreys' reasons for ditching head coach Brian McLaughlin after he steered them to European heights not previously witnessed this century.

The messy affair can only be resurrected by the efforts of Mark Anscombe next season -- building on McLaughlin's laudable three-year reign will justify the redeployment of the current head coach.

As well as McLaughlin taking the reins for the last time in Belfast, tonight also sees the final home appearance of No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg, initially signed in emergency circumstances after Xavier Rush bailed out of a transfer at the last minute two seasons ago.

Swirling

Emotions will surely be swirling around the old venue tonight.

"I want to remember my last game at Ravenhill for the right reasons," says 20-times capped Springbok Wannenburg, who played over 100 games with the Bulls and is set to join French outfit Castres this summer.

"We've got a team in which everybody is positive. Tonight will be Brian's last home game in charge too, so everybody wants to finish well for him.

"But if you focus on things off the pitch rather than on it, that will not be what is best for the team. So, it's about going out and performing rather than worrying about any of this other stuff.

"It's going to be tough against Leinster. Ulster have won only once in their last 16 games against them. But when you look at this year, records are there to be broken, so, hopefully, we can do this.

"We did it against Munster, who had never lost at home in the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup. We went out and we did it and I think we can do it again.

"But it is the league tonight. You don't think about the game beyond the next one. As a player, as a person, you want to go out and play your best game and once you start thinking about other things you are distracted.

"Our best preparation for next week is to play well this week. So, we will just focus on the game ahead. There is still plenty to play for. We know we have to win, but it's at Ravenhill, it's our home ground and we don't want to throw away our record here.

"It's sad for me leaving, but I will always treasure Ravenhill and I will always love Belfast. It will always be part of my life. I got married to Estelle here and my daughter Isabelle was born here. I aim to finish on a high."

Refreshingly, both sides pitch arguably their strongest sides against each other for the first time in quite a while in a fixture which has normally seen one or the other rest a clutch of front-liners. With Heineken Cup semi-finals looming for both sides next week, neither coach can afford such a luxury and, as such, only a handful of first-teamers on either side are rested.

For Ulster, Stephen Ferris, Rory Best, Ian Humphreys and Dan Tuohy are reserved for Lansdowne duty, while Bordeaux-bound Leinster hold back Isa Nacewa, Jamie Heaslip and Gordon D'Arcy; all three played against Edinburgh last weekend.

Ulster, who maintain an outside shout for a semi-final berth, will not care a whit once they reach a Heineken Cup final; hence, the performance of the returning tight-head Declan Fitzpatrick, for the first time since injuring his back five months ago, will be of keen interest.

Given that Tom Court failed to exorcise his Twickenham demons against an eager young tyro in Galway last weekend, Fitzpatrick's fitness, in light of John Afoa's suspension, will be a litmus test for Ulster's hopes next week.

Leinster were slightly jarred by the late withdrawal of Eoin O'Malley with a recurrence of his calf strain, albeit it does allow Fergus McFadden a rare outing in what many feel may be his best long-term home at inside centre.

Dominic Ryan, who has form against Clermont from last season, gets a chance in the ultra-competitive back-row area, while Sean O'Brien will hope to revive memories of a barnstorming display here last season.

Then, at the peak of his formidable powers, he scored two jaw-dropping tries from trademark bursts, but, as he again admitted this week, his performances have frustratingly dropped below the high standards he sets himself.

There are 13 Ireland-qualified players in Leinster's starting XV -- Ulster, notably, possess 11 capable of wearing Ireland green.

Scrum-half Eoin Reddan makes the 60th Leinster appearance of his career, while Luke Fitzgerald is named in an exciting, counter-attacking back three alongside the Kearney brothers, Rob and Dave.

Kevin McLaughlin -- who joins McFadden in making a 70th appearance for the Heineken Cup champions -- is another seeking to edge his way more firmly into Schmidt's Heineken Cup plans.

When scrum-half Isaac Boss, one of four Ireland internationals on the bench, appears as one of Leinster's more than likely pre-planned raft of replacements, it will mark his 50th provincial appearance.

McLaughlin has made nine personnel changes and a further two positional switches to the team which lost 26-21 to Connacht last weekend, virtually ending their slim play-off hopes, though there could be a potential last-day reprieve in -- where else? -- Thomond Park should other results help them.

Firstly, they need a victory here and, even though both sides have an eye on next week, home advantage and the peculiar whirl of emotion surrounding the head coach may tip the balance in Ulster's favour.

Verdict: Ulster

Ulster -- S Terblanche; A Trimble, D Cave, P Wallace, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; T Court, N Brady, D Fitzpatrick; J Muller (capt), L Stevenson; C Henry, W Faloon, P Wannenburg. Reps: A Kyricaou, P McAllister, A Macklin, N McComb, R Diack, I Porter, I Humphreys, A D'Arcy.

Leinster -- R Kearney; D Kearney, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, E Reddan; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), B Thorn; K McLaughlin, D Ryan, S O'Brien. Reps: S Cronin, H van der Merwe, N White, D Toner, S Jennings, I Boss, I Madigan, F Carr.

Ref -- J Lacey (IRFU).

Ulster v Leinster,

Live, RTE2/BBC2, 7.05

Irish Independent