The Semi-Final: Leinster Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby

Craig Gilroy

Craig Gilroy speeds away from Johnny Sexton

We’ve been in this situation before.

A trip to the RDS Arena for a knockout match? Yeah, that isn’t unfamiliar territory for us since we’ve done it several times before, especially in the past few years. Leinster have definitely been our bogey team when it comes to knockout matches – in past years they’ve denied us a Heineken Cup, a PRO12 title and two further shots at the PRO12 too. It becomes almost infuriating that we can’t be rid of them in knockout scenarios.

A win at the RDS Arena in a knockout match? That’s something we’ve never experienced before.

Much has been made of the usual stats that nobody has ever won an away semi-final and that we’ve only won once in 12 attempts down in Dublin. It’s more than likely that those stats will be bandied about a few times more before the game and even during the game as well, but it’s up to us to push those stats to the back of our minds and focus on the task at hand.

Because we are the form team of the final four having won our last four games and, following our demolition of the Ospreys, we should be confident that we can go anywhere and pick up the win. Our backs have excelled since we introduced a second openside flanker into our back row and if our scrum and set piece can hold steady then we are a very difficult team to break down and defeat.

That’s why we should enter this week’s game confident but not cocky. We have the ability to play some of the best rugby in Europe on our day, as evidenced in parts over the last few weeks, and we should believe that we can win this game. But we must also be wary of Leinster – they are a completely different beast in Dublin and the side we will take on tomorrow will not roll over like the one that did in Belfast three weeks ago.

There’s a difference between Leinster during the regular season and Leinster in knockout matches.

Leinster are a lot more ruthless when it comes to knockout rugby – they have a squad that knows exactly how to win and how to get the job done in the games that matter. The experience of players who have “been there, done that” is what can be the difference between winning and losing, and having the home advantage this weekend will be a massive advantage in their favour. They are not unbeatable, but it will be a different animal in Dublin.

Their back line is still pedestrian, especially with the loss of Rob Kearney and, without Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier, they are missing an out-and-out openside flanker in their team. Their main weapon will be their tight five, especially in the scrum with Jack McGrath and Mike Ross operating on opposite sides of the front row, but if we can neutralise that then we stand an excellent chance of winning.

This is potentially the best chance we’ve ever had of picking up an away win in a semi-final and we have to take it. Our run to end the season has been very impressive and for the first time we seem to be heading into the play-offs on a high as opposed to off the back of a few mediocre performances which should stand us in good stead. A dry night combined with a continuation of how we played in Swansea and we’ll be flying.

Hopefully all the way to Edinburgh.

The stats

Leinster have only lost once in their last four games, and that was to us in Belfast back in round 21 when we won 30-6 at the Kingspan Stadium. Our hosts are undefeated in the league at the RDS Arena since the Newport-Gwent Dragons were the visitors in 2015, however they did lose to Wasps there in the Champions’ Cup back in October. Their record in the PRO12 play-offs is played 6, won 6.

We, on the other hand, are undefeated in our last four with our last loss coming away to the Glasgow Warriors on the 25th March and we have picked up 18 of a possible 20 points from our last four games. In complete contrast to Leinster, we’ve only been victorious in the play-offs on one occasion – a 28-17 win over the Scarlets at home in the 2013 semi-final.

The last four regular season meetings between the two sides have gone the way of the home side on the day, but the only time Leinster have failed to win a knock-out match against us in all competitions (we have met six times in total) was in the quarter-final of the 2003 Celtic Cup when we managed to go through on tries scored following a 23-23 draw.

Our one and only victory at the RDS Arena came in March 2013 when we held out for a famous 22-18 win in the Guinness PRO12.

The teams

Leo Cullen has opted for just one change to the team that defeated Treviso a couple of weeks ago with Rob Kearney ruled out due to injury meaning Isa Nacewa shifts to full-back and Luke Fitzgerald coming onto the wing. The pack is unchanged while there are a couple of changes on the bench with Jack Conan and Ian Madigan brought back into the squad.

We are unchanged from our win over the Ospreys, with tighthead prop Wiehahn Herbst unable to shake off an injury to rejoin the matchday squad this week.

 

Leinster Rugby vs. Ulster Rugby

Friday 20th May, 19:45

RDS Arena

Guinness PRO12 – Semi-Final

 

Live on Sky Sports 3, BBC2 Northern Ireland and TG4

 

LEINSTER RUGBY

15. Isa Nacewa (capt.), 14. Dave Kearney, 13. Garry Ringrose, 12. Ben Te’o, 11. Luke Fitzgerald, 10. Johnny Sexton, 9. Eoin Reddan; 1. Jack McGrath, 2. Richardt Strauss, 3. Mike Ross, 4. Devin Toner, 5. Mick Kearney, 6. Rhys Ruddock, 7. Jordi Murphy, 8. Jamie Heaslip.

Replacements: 16. Sean Cronin, 17. Peter Dooley, 18. Tadhg Furlong, 19. Ross Molony, 20. Jack Conan, 21. Luke McGrath, 22. Ian Madigan, 23. Zane Kirchner.

ULSTER RUGBY

15. Jared Payne, 14. Andrew Trimble, 13. Luke Marshall, 12. Stuart McCloskey, 11. Craig Gilroy, 10. Paddy Jackson, 9. Ruan Pienaar; 1. Callum Black, 2. Rory Best (capt.), 3. Ricky Lutton, 4. Pete Browne, 5. Franco van der Merwe, 6. Iain Henderson, 7. Chris Henry, 8. Sean Reidy.

Replacements: 16. Rob Herring, 17. Kyle McCall, 18. Andy Warwick, 19. Robbie Diack, 20. Roger Wilson, 21. Paul Marshall, 22. Stuart Olding, 23. Darren Cave.

 

Referee: Ian Davies (WRU, 48th competition game)

Assistant Referees: Ben Whitehouse, Sean Brickell (both WRU)

Citing Commissioner: John Cole (IRFU)

TMO: Jon Mason (WRU)