Kingspan showdown a game-changer Guinness PRO12

An enormous game for both teams. So said Tommy Bowe earlier this week of tonight’s Guinness PRO12 meeting in Belfast between Ulster and Leinster.

Kingspan showdown a game-changer Guinness PRO12

Truth is he wasn’t even half right.

This is a game of import not just for the combatants themselves, but also for league leaders Glasgow, Munster and Ospreys as the domestic season winds down towards the play-offs and final.

Leinster’s predicament, stranded in fifth and a full eight points behind the Welsh region, has garnered most of the focus this week, but this is the start of a seminal period for the northern province as well.

Defeat would cede ground to Munster in the race for second and a priceless home semi-final. Win and they dump Leinster, who have done more than any to deprive them of trophies, from contention.

That Leinster should find themselves in this predicament could be down to any number of factors, be it a season bedevilled by injuries, the strains placed on them by the IRFU’s player welfare programme or the coaching tenure of Matt O’Connor.

Views differ on all of those.

Whatever the reason(s), this is where they find themselves, facing a settled Ulster side bristling with confidence after six wins in seven and with the added incentive of making the final in their own back yard of Kingspan Stadium.

Leinster’s task is simple: win their last three games, probably with three bonus points, and hope that Ospreys or Ulster – who must also face Munster and Glasgow in the last two regular rounds – suffer a meltdown of monumental proportions.

“We’re fighting for our lives,” Sean O’Brien admitted this week. “We have to give ourselves the best possible chance at the end of these three games. It starts this week. Everybody is aware of that.

“We’re not hiding from that or glossing it over it. We’re in this position now. We’ve let a few games slip during the year which we shouldn’t have and we’re going to have to find our way out of it.”

You wouldn’t put money on it.

Neil Doak has unnamed an unchanged Ulster team and Kingspan Stadium, from where only Toulon of eleven visiting teams have left with a victory this season, will be jammed with 18,000 punters desperate for victory.

Doak boasts a sumptuous back line controlled by Ruan Pienaar and a forward unit that can look to an impressive back row and two other sub-units that hardly lack for sprinkles of class. All of them will take to the field thinking this is their time.

Leinster, by way of contrast, have made four changes to the side that lost their Rugby Champions Cup semi-final to Toulon after extra-time in Marseille, the most notable being Gordon D’Arcy’s elevation in place of Ian Madigan.

It’s an eye-catching selection given D’Arcy’s last start for what could be loosely termed a ‘big’ game was back in December against Munster and it completes a horrible week for Madigan whose pass was intercepted by Bryan Habana for the crucial score last week.

The other change to the back line sees Zane Kirchner replace the injured Fergus McFadden while Sean Cronin and Jordi Murphy can probably feel some sense of grievance at being dropped in favour of Richardt Strauss and Dominic Ryan.

Then again, the five-day turnaround being asked of the visitors was probably always going to result in some personnel changes, though that timeframe is just one more reason to suspect that their season will all but end tonight.

ULSTER:

L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best, W Herbst; D Tuohy, F Van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson.

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.

Referee:

J Lacey (IRFU)

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