Muller’s Last Stand

With Munster’s defeat to Toulon meaning no Irish team’s in the Heineken Cup final, the fizz is threatening to go out of the Irish rugby season. With that in mind, Ulster facing Leinster head-on tonight in the Pro12 couldn’t be better timed. For the third season in a row, these two Irish behemoths play each other in May with plenty at stake – we’d lots of great stuff written about how this was must-win for Ulster, but then those wasteful Ospreys threw in a careless defeat to Zebre that pretty much means Ulster only need a single point from their last two games to make the semi-finals.  Gah!  Nonetheless, they’ll be looking for the win with a view to maybe passing out Munster and getting some much needed momentum for the semi-finals.  Coming into the business end on the back of a run of consecutive defeats would be far from an ideal.

The Leinster v Munster derby that came to define Irish rugby over the last decade tends to swallow all the oxygen, but with Ulster now dining at the same table as the two southern provinces, there’s no reason why that should continue. Indeed, the gap between the three provinces is probably as tight as it’s ever been, with all three strong but none outstanding. Leinster have come off a bit from a peak of two years ago, Munster have made big gains this season, while Ulster have been consistently strong for a while now.

For Ulster their mentality all week will have been win-or-almost-bust, but now they can relax a bit.  For Leinster, a losing bonus point will be tolerable, but a win will virtually assure them of the valuable top spot going into the knockouts. The game will have added poignancy for the Ravenhill faithful, as it’s Tom Court and Johann Muller’s last match at the ground. The South African has captained the side almost since his arrival and made a huge impression in his time here; a top-drawer import who offered massive value to the team. Court is the least valued player in Irish rugby – we suspect it will be a case of we didn’t know what we had until he went.

I the sting has been taken out of the match a little with Ospreys losing, the game should still be a treat with fascinating match-ups all over the paddock. Egg’s half-empty worldview has him looking concernedly as the front rows. No Rory Best or John Afoa for Ulster; instead Rob Herring and rookie prop Andrew Warwick go up against an all-international Leinster unit. Warwick is up against one of the world’s premier looseheads in Cian Healy, so it doesn’t get any tougher. Iain Henderson is selected ahead of Dan Tuohy, and he and Muller face-off against Leinster’s Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy. Toner has played an awful lot of rugby this season, much of it of the first order, but he’s perhaps showing signs of fatigue. Can he get back his Six Nations energy levels for this monstrous game?

Ferris is once again injured, so Ulster’s backrow lines up with Wilson at 6, Henry at 7 and Nuck Wulliams at 8. Good players all, but Williams hasn’t quite had the impact he did last season, and for all the skittle-smashing runs against rubbish opposition, he still doesn’t convince against more organised teams.

Leinster go with Ruddock, Jennings and Heaslip. Jennings excelled in the final against Ulster this year, and has often been effective at neutralising Henry’s breakdown shenanigans. No doubt he’s charged with that as his primary task tonight. Heaslip had one of those ‘Tonight, I’m going to do everything’ performances last week against Treviso, and has contributed yet another season of consistently good rugby. In the modern game where injuries are the norm, and considering the role he plays for the team, his durability borders on the freakish. Ruddock is now firmly established as first-choice 6, while Kevin McLaughlin probably needs a break, and to come back refreshed.

Both sides are missing their best scrum half, and they’ll feel it. Boss and Reddan have been neck-and-neck in the past, but not this year, where Reddan has been easily the better of the two. Ruan Pienaar is a big miss for Ulster, and Paul Marshall has played badly this season. A zippy, potentially game-changing impact substitute only a couple of seasons ago, he looks to be playing in treacle of late.

The media will be happy to paint the match as Jackson v Madigan. They may even forget there are 28 other players on the pitch. Nonetheless, it’ll be fascinating. Both are vying for the role of back-up to Sexton at test level, and for Ian Madigan, it’s been a frustrating season in which he hasn’t brought his best form. Indeed, he’s become one of the most talked about players in the comment section below. This would be an opportune moment to deliver a big performance, but then we’ve been saying that all season and he’s never really got motoring.

Centre has a similarly headline-friendly look to it, as the two Giant Dwarves of Leinster pair up against the two chaps seemingly inked in as their replacements for Ireland; Luke Marshall and Jared Payne. Payne at 13 is a most interesting selection, because with Cave – one of Ulster’s best players this year –on the bench, it’s not out of necessity. An audition for something, maybe?

It’s advantage Ulster on the wings, where Tommy Bowe is Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble is one of the year’s major success stories. Zane Kirchner and Dave Kearney have international pedigree but don’t pack quite the same punch. But Leinster make up for it at full back, where they have the mighty Rob Kearney going up against the less experienced Ricky Andrew.

Leinster have done well in Ravenhill down the years, and the ground holds no fears for them, and they look to have the better form coming into the game. Given the names missing from the Ulster team, it’s a tall enough order, but don’t forget that last year they came down to the RDS with Ricky Lutton and Adam Mackin as tightheads and won, with Macklin holding up the Ulster scrum when Leinster were camped on the Ulster line in the game’s last phase. At the risk of going all Munster-meeja on it, Ulster could tap into a well of emotion and deliver a big performance, but Leinster are favourites.

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  1. Healy must be licking his lips. Big display from the Ulster front row needed to win this game

  2. Barry

     /  May 2, 2014

    “the two southern provinces” Er I think Leinster is the Eastern Province – Munster is Southern. I guess all 3 (incl Connacht) comprise Southern Ireland in your view?

    • Ah, let’s not be so pedantic. We don’t really have a collective term for Leinster and Munster and we were trying not to repeat ourselves. You know what we’re getting at, right?

    • Plus, lets be honest, Wexford is in Leinster and it’s right on the southern coastline. 🙂

  3. JT

     /  May 2, 2014

    What’s wrong with Ferris? Is it a new injury, or recurring one, and do we know how long he is out for? Am dying to see him on the plane for the June tests. Cheers

    • Leinsterlion

       /  May 2, 2014

      Ferris, June? No way, the likes of Ruddock, Diack, POM should be used, he and SOB are our first choice blindsides, they need to be wrapped in cotton wool, get a full pre season in and aim for November.

      • Sound Steve

         /  May 2, 2014

        LL – why do love Diack so much?

        • Diack ran towards Sexton instead of away from him at the try line in the Ulster-Leinster rabo final. Sexton prevented the try which would if converted would have given the game to Ulster. Hence Diack is LL’s favourite ulster player.

        • Leinsterlion

           /  May 2, 2014

          I think he is up there with Heaslip in terms of consistency(discounting the fact he’s done for the year, lol), he’s played the majority of Ulsters games at 6(granted Ferris has been out), delivering solid game after solid game. He tackles, rucks and carries ball, what more do you want from your blindside? He’s no Smith or Kaino, but he’s at the top of the heap of guys below SOB and Ferris, for the blindside spot. He’s just a totally solid pro, easily worth a few caps.

          • Bobby T

             /  May 2, 2014

            But surely as Diack’s preferred position is 8 then he cannot in any logical world be a good 6. I mean 6s are 6s and 7s are 7s and 8s are 8s with completely distinguishable roles and attributes right? All positions need exact prescription except 10 where you do not need to actually play like a 10 but merely run everything and do what you want ignoring any positional aspects of the sport.

      • Who is your first choice openside LL, Chris Henry?

        • Leinsterlion

           /  May 3, 2014

          Henry deserves it, unless Jenno, TOD and Jordi step it up to a level beyond what Henry has displayed so far, its his jersey to lose.

    • He knackered his good ankle and a knee I think.

  4. Leinsterlion

     /  May 2, 2014

    Outside of Madigan and Kearney our backline looks utterly pedestrian, Darce and Drico whilst Darce can still churn up the yards and is a relative rock, Drico has only been able to do that in fits and starts, tbh I would have liked to see Macken(as ordinary/awful as he has been), given a run against someone like Payne. Kirchner and second rate Kearney are no ones idea of incisive wingers, Kirchner the most puzzling Leinster signing since the duds in Chekias first few seasons. I reckon we have more then enough about us up front to get some front foot ball for Boss to turn to treacle and Madigan to do something with is he is given the freedom to( as opposed to kicking aimlessly according to MOC’s master plan). Ulster dont have enough up front no matter their superior scrummie, wingers and centers, we should get over the line, just.

    • Jimbob

       /  May 2, 2014

      Madigan’s been pretty pedestrian this year.. and I say that as a Madigan fan. You’re a bit harsh on DK and Kirchner too; DK having his best season yet making consistent yards and making good decisions with ball in hand. Kirchner has been under-utilised this season but has played very well making breaks, off-loading well and kicking excellently when given a chance. Neither are the showiest of players but they both do their job very well.

      It should also be said that the wings (unless you’re Darragh Fanning strangely) have seen minimal ball this season under MOC, and when they have it’s been in minimal space thanks to Gopperths crabbing to the side.

      • Leinsterlion

         /  May 2, 2014

        Leinster have been pretty pedestrian this year, and I say this as a Leinster fan.. Madigans poor form or “pedestrianess” can be directly attributed to whatever it is MOC is trying to get us to do. I dont think Im being harsh on the lesser Kearney, he’s great hardworking squad player, but he is not a game changer either through skill, pace or physicality, jack of all trades, ideal bench material, we need firepower on the wings, lesser Kearney doesn’t bring it.
        Kirchner, going to have to disagree, thought he was crap for the Boks and the Bulls, he’s proven me wrong by not being utterly crap(odd defensive lapse aside), but he hasnt set the world alight, pointless signing, you’d pick up some young beast of an Islander who could do everything he does and more.

        • ‘Madigans poor form or “pedestrianess” can be directly attributed to whatever it is MOC is trying to get us to do. ‘

          What a load of nonsense.

          People really need to get their heads around it, Madigan isn’t turning out to be the player many thought he was going to be. That’s not all MOC’s fault.

          • Don

             /  May 2, 2014

            I don’t know about that Oval. The coach has a huge influence on the player. Madigan was positively flying last season under Schmidt, as are a lot of the Irish players now (Andrew Trimble, take a bow) but suddenly under MOC he looks a completely different player.
            I am not arguing with you for the sake of arguing with you or, even having a pop at MOC, but it’s the coaches job to get the best out of the players available and, having seen what he can do last season, he is patently not doing that with Madigan.

  5. Hairy Naomh Mhuire

     /  May 2, 2014

    If there is any truth to the rumour that forwards win games & backs decide by how much, then very hard to make a case for the home team (other than being the home team?). Shame Ulster are missing some of their key forwards as could otherwise be epic. Still some fascinating battles & performances to look forward to. I think this match-up can now lay claim to being the most attractive in the Pro 12 leaving behind (as you rightly allude to) the over-hyped & often under-whelming ‘southern’ version.

  6. Seeing as how this fixture is going since 1875 and it’s the official opening of the new Ravenhill, good luck to all involved. Of course I would prefer to see Leinster win. But as long as it’s a good fair match, out of which all come with their reputations embellished, I’ll be happy. If I could have a personal wish fulfilled, it would be for Madigan to play the full eighty minutes and Luke McGrath to come on in the second half, in order to see how they combine as a half-back pairing against serious opposition.

  7. If the atmosphere is anything like what it was for the Heineken cup QF, it should be pretty awesome. I reckon Ulster might just shade it, but it’ll take a fair few bounces of the ball, and Marshall to do his best Bastareaud impression on BOD’Arcy. Kind of perplexed that Payne’s starting at 13, putting him at 15 and Cave starting is hands down our best backline. I can only think that it’s to give the bench a bit of a chance, and try and prevent him from running after high balls willy-nilly and let him settle back into the game a little more easily. Opposite some guy called Brian. Hoping for a good match!

  8. Stephen

     /  May 2, 2014

    I’m already getting tense, just imagining the collective shitstorm of inhaled breath the first time Payne chases a box kick.

  9. Ro

     /  May 2, 2014

    After the disapointment of the HC this is just the tonic. These derby games really get the interest going. Think tonight’s game will be a high scoring affair (not usual for derby games). Ulster back line looks impressive. Interested to see Payne at 13. These teams could meet again in a couple of weeks, will Besty & Pineear be available then?

  10. zdm

     /  May 2, 2014

    Ulster will get no change in the tight or in the midfield in this game so their attacking threat has to come from their backs, particularly given the personnel out wide. I’d expect Ulster to attack the channel between outside centre and wing with T-Bow and The Good Reverend Bosch cutting inside at every opportunity in the first half then running it wide after about 50 mins.

    Start with Cave 13/Payne 15 and if that plan doesn’t work, Ulster are a busted flush fairly early on with their only sub in the outside backs down-grading the team significantly – Payne to 13 after 50 minutes of chasing bombs with Andrew at full back will hardly strike fear into Leinster hearts. On the other hand, bringing on an uber-frustrated Cave after 50 to run at that channel and move Payne back to 15 is a much more potent back line.

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