Leinster and Ulster begin the New Year with a repeat of last season’s PRO12 semi-final at the RDS. Matt O’Connor’s men prevailed by four points that day, and another close match is expected in front of the Sky Sports cameras.
GUINNESS PRO12: Saturday, January 3
LEINSTER (6th) v ULSTER (4th), the RDS, 2.40pm (live Sky Sports 1 HD/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor has made five personnel changes to the team that lost to Munster at Thomond Park, with captain Jamie Heaslip and a host of other internationals returning to the fold.
Four of those changes are in the pack with Jack McGrath and Mike Ross starting in the front row. Richardt Strauss continues as the starting hooker.
Devin Toner comes back into the second row to partner Mike McCarthy, while in the back row Heaslip starts at number 8 which means a move to blindside flanker for Jack Conan. Shane Jennings remains in place at openside.
In the backs, there is only one switch which sees the fit-again Fergus McFadden start on the right wing in place of Darragh Fanning. McFadden had surgery on a thumb injury after the game against the Ospreys in round 9 of the PRO12. Dave Kearney is selected on the left wing, with Springbok Zane Kirchner at full-back.
Gordon D’Arcy, who won his 250th Leinster cap against Munster, starts at inside centre with Luke Fitzgerald outside him in the number 13 jersey. Finally, Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan are once again the starting half-backs.
There is also a place in the matchday 23 for the returning Ben Te’o, who is available for the first time since fracturing his forearm during his debut against Edinburgh in October.
The inteprovincial game against Ulster is sold out and with gates open from 1.10pm, supporters are urged to come early for the 2.40pm kick-off and to make themselves heard at a packed RDS.
Meanwhile, Ulster boss Neil Doak has made four changes and two positional switches to the team that beat Connacht last weekend.
Ruan Pienaar has recovered from injury and starts at scrum half, while Ireland internationals Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, who were both rested against Connacht, also come back into the starting line-up.
Stuart Olding is included at inside centre having been on the bench last week, as is number 8 Roger Wilson who has recovered from the knock that he sustained against Connacht.
In the backs, Peter Nelson moves to full-back and Craig Gilroy switches flanks from the right to the left wing.
Bowe returns to the side in the number 14 jersey with Olding selected in midfield alongside Darren Cave. Paddy Jackson continues at out-half where he will have Pienaar inside him.
In the front row Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst are selected either side of returning captain Best. The second row remains unchanged with Dan Tuohy partnering Franco van der Merwe.
There are also no changes to the back row as Wilson anchors the scrum, Robbie Diack starts at blindside flanker and former Lansdowne player Clive Ross is selected at openside.
Man-of-the-match from last week, Rob Herring, starts on the bench as do fellow forwards Andrew Warwick, Bronson Ross, Alan O’Connor and Sean Reidy. Backs Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys and Luke Marshall complete the matchday squad.
LEINSTER: Zane Kirchner; Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Ian Madigan, Isaac Boss; Jack McGrath, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Mike McCarthy, Jack Conan, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Michael Bent, Tadhg Furlong, Kane Douglas, Jordi Murphy, Luke McGrath, Jimmy Gopperth, Ben Te’o.
ULSTER: Peter Nelson; Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Callum Black, Rory Best (capt), Wiehahn Herbst, Dan Tuohy, Franco van der Merwe, Robbie Diack, Clive Ross, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Bronson Ross, Alan O’Connor, Sean Reidy, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys, Luke Marshall.
Referee: Marius Mitrea (Italy)
Assistant Referees: Eddie Hogan O’Connell, Mark Connolly (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Jude Quinn (Ireland)
Pre-Match Quotes: Shane Jennings (Leinster) – “We are going to have to have a look at ourselves and have a good week in order to play Ulster, because Ulster are a bloody good team and they are going to be tough to play against.
“It is not a game that we can lose because if we fall down again, that is going to be another few points of the top four and it is going to be difficult going into the Six Nations.
“The reality of it is that we have to fight every week to get into that top four. At the minute we are not consistently playing well enough to maintain those points.
“It’s a long season, we’re halfway through now and we’ve got a home game against Ulster coming up. We are fifth with three points the difference between us and that top four spot. Personally I am very confident that we are going to be there or thereabouts (for the play-offs).
“It was an opportunity that we missed last Friday to gain a bit of a foothold in that top four and players understand that more than anybody.”
Neil Doak (Ulster) – “When you look at the (Connacht) game, I think we were pretty dominant – we just didn’t get the just rewards. They are a dogged side and the conditions were difficult. Coming off the back of two losses we showed some good character to get the win.
“We have been pretty good at home this year. We have lost just once – to Toulon. Our home form has been especially good in the league. Away from home we have got to certain points and we just haven’t been able to finish teams off and that has been frustrating.
“This weekend, against Leinster, is going to be a big challenge for us in Dublin. We have to go down the road and try and take our home form with us. Hopefully if we can get the same dominance up front, we will have a platform that we can kick on from.
“We fronted up last year (in the league semi-final at the RDS), but in the 72nd minute we were in the lead and they brought on a couple of guys who made a good impact and Ian Madigan got in for a score that took the game away from us.”
Top Scorers – 2014/15 GUINNESS PRO12: Leinster – Points: Ian Madigan 94; Tries: Darragh Fanning, Ian Madigan, Dominic Ryan 3 each; Ulster – Points: Ian Humphreys 81; Tries: Andrew Trimble 4
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Friday, December 21, 2012 – Ulster 27 Leinster 19, Ravenhill
Saturday, March 30, 2013 – Leinster 18 Ulster 22, the RDS
Saturday, May 25, 2013 – Final – Leinster 24 Ulster 18, the RDS
Saturday, December 28, 2013 – Leinster 19 Ulster 6, the RDS
Friday, May 2, 2014 – Ulster 20 Leinster 22, Ravenhill
Saturday, May 17, 2014 – Semi-final – Leinster 13 Ulster 9, the RDS
– Leinster’s five-match unbeaten run in the GUINNESS PRO12 came to an end in Limerick on St. Stephen’s Day. The Leinstermen have not lost successive encounters in the competition in the same season since 2010/11
– Leinster have won their last 19 fixtures in all competitions at the RDS since drawing there 29-all with the Ospreys in September 2013, while their most recent defeat at the venue came when Ulster were the visitors in the PRO12 when Michael Cheika was in charge in March 2013
– Ulster defeated Connacht 13-10 in Belfast in round 1 of the PRO12 to end a two-match losing streak in the league
– The Ulstermen’s only victory on the road in any competition this season was at the Cardiff Blues in round 3 of the PRO12
– Leinster have won their last four matches against Ulster since the northern side were 22-18 winners at the RDS on March 30, 2013 (the Ulstermen’s only victory on Leinster soil since 1999)