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Under-pressure Leinster know it's all on the line against Ulster in PRO12

By Michael Sadlier

Published 24/04/2015

Agonisingly close: Leinster stars show their frustration after pushing Toulon all the way in the European Champions Cup
Agonisingly close: Leinster stars show their frustration after pushing Toulon all the way in the European Champions Cup

You haven't needed to listen hard to catch the sounds of Leinster bemoaning the IRFU's Player Management Programme which, however justifiable, is a sure sign that this has been a misfiring season for the much-decorated province.

Their PRO12 campaign has spluttered its way to the point where should they lose tonight - and other results go against them - then the boys in blue will miss out on having a presence in the PRO12 semi-finals for the first time since the format was introduced back in season 2009-10.

For a province rather well-versed in walking away with silverware - they have won three Heineken Cups, an Amlin Challenge Cup and two PRO12 titles over a period of six seasons - the situation currently facing the under-fire coach Matt O'Connor and his squad looks pretty grim.

The fact that they threw everything into last Sunday's Champions Cup semi-final in Marseille and could have beaten the galacticos of Toulon, before succumbing after extra time, doesn't seem to have cut O'Connor too much slack now that he is facing the double-whammy of ending all interest in retaining the PRO12 title tonight.

Further punishment also awaits should Leinster fail - if they can't improve on their current fifth place in the PRO12, next season's Champions Cup seeding will be anything but kind to them.

This is highly unpalatable to Leinster's following who have become fattened by the success delivered first by Michael Cheika and then the heights scaled by Joe Schmidt. Even though O'Connor delivered a PRO12 trophy last season, the style of play the Australian has brought, and his rather taciturn manner, has not been to the liking of supporters.

Leinster just haven't looked themselves under O'Connor and have malfunctioned in a much more high-profile way in this PRO12 campaign where a combination of Ireland's call and the lack of depth in their squad has not done them any favours.

Jonathan Sexton's arrival for next season has helped to considerably lift the mood but there is still much discomfort over how things have panned out over this campaign.

So, much is at stake tonight. O'Connor has, understandably, selected something close to the same starting side which so nearly tasted success against Toulon, though the dropping of Ian Madigan to the bench is the most eye-catching call.

It seems that Madigan has carried the can for what occurred in the Stade Velodrome on Sunday with Gordon D'Arcy brought in to partner the somewhat low-key Ben Te'o while the half-back partnership of Isaac Boss and Jimmy Gopperth remains intact.

Elsewhere, Fergus McFadden's season-ending thumb injury means that Zane Kirchner starts on the right wing while the other two changes are in the pack with Richardt Strauss in for Sean Cronin, who is benched.

The other alteration sees Dominic Ryan starting at blindside flanker - wrecking ball Sean O'Brien and skipper Jamie Heaslip make up the rest of the back row with the latter due to make his 200th Leinster appearance - while Jordi Murphy drops to the replacements.

It really is all or nothing now for Leinster with the real difference being that few believe they can actually rescue the situation.

Belfast Telegraph

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