LAST NIGHT, MUNSTER and Glasgow showed that the RaboDirect Pro12 is a competition that can serve up truly enthralling encounters, with the expectation being that Leinster versus Ulster will at least match that absorbing contest.
It would be no surprise if the RDS hosts an even better semi-final this evening [KO 7.00pm], given the extent to which the rivalry between these two provinces has grown so wholly in recent years.
Both Matt O’Connor and Mark Anscombe have sprung selection surprises for this game, with the former opting to bring South African lock Quinn Roux, who was seemingly far from favour until now, into his starting team.
For Ulster, Darren Cave and Jared Payne start as the midfield pairing, with Craig Gilroy having held his position at fullback. This is an Ulster backline bristling with pace, power and counter-attacking invention.
Up front, Leinster will be confident that their improvements over the course of the season will see them come out on top at the set-piece, but led by the soon-to-retire Johann Muller, Ulster will provide fierce opposition in every tight exchange.
It is difficult to confidently predict ascendency for either team in any area of the pitch, with so much international quality to choose from. That Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien will all play parts only adds to the high quality nature of this meeting.
Matt O’Connor stated that neither team would look to spring tactical shocks, instead focusing on doing what they have done all season, but better. Those words are to be taken with a liberal pinch of salt; the winners will surely bring some innovation to their existing structures in order to break down a familiar opponent.
If suffering pain in play-off games is a prerequisite to winning titles, than this is Ulster’s year. On the flip side, Brian O’Driscoll’s final game ending in defeat would be an uncharacteristic ending.
There are subplots such as these woven throughout this fixture, but it is only actions on the pitch which will have any effect on the outcome. A marvellous evening of all-Irish Pro12 action awaits.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore; Devin Toner, Quinn Roux; Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip (capt.).
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Sean O’Brien, Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner.
Ulster: Craig Gilroy; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best, Ricky Lutton; Johann Muller (capt.), Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Adam Macklin, Dan Tuohy, Sean Doyle, Paul Marshall, James McKinney, Luke Marshall.