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The inside track on the game

By Niall Crozier

We tackle all the battles in tonight’s big clash both on and off the field

Leinster v Ulster Pro12 semi-final at RDS (7.00pm)

The main threats

Ulster's concession of penalties in recent times has been a major handicap and in their match against Leinster a fortnight ago it was a significant factor in their undoing.

It is something they have examined closely in a bid to eradicate the concession of cheap points, rather than forcing opponents to work hard for any rewards. Jimmy Gopperth will gobble up any gifts Ulster toss his way as a result of indiscipline.

In harness with this being an inter-pro, tonight's clash weds the emotion of the occasion to the fact there is a place in a final at stake. So, with all the attendant adrenalin and testosterone factored in, Ulster must keep their heads and show control and composure in what will be a hostile environment. Their record here is one they must ignore.

The hosts have named a menacing back three in the Kearney brothers and fit-again Fergus McFadden, so if they and Jimmy Gopperth are synchronised in terms of their kick-chase, Leinster will pose a threat should they manage to find any unprotected green patches.

With 6ft 11ins Devin Toner to aim at, the line-out is a set-piece at which they will fancy themselves, too.

Team tactics

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe used the same noun twice in the course of our mid-week conversation – fire-power.

His conviction that Ulster have it – and looking at his selection one can see the grounds for that belief – means the plan will be to supply Cave, Payne, Bowe, Trimble and Gilroy as often and as early as possible in that there are areas in the wider channels they can exploit.

This is a particularly mobile Ulster set-up, though before they can maximise that, they must front up in the pack and put down a few early markers. The first scrum will be crucial, with Black, Best and Lutton required to leave Leinster's all-international front row – Healy, Cronin and Moore – in no doubt as to their intentions by making it plain they won't be taking a step backwards.

The hosts' midfield double-lock is notoriously difficult to open so, as well as controlling the speed and accuracy of their passing, Ulster must vary their attacks by testing D'Arcy on his right shoulder and O'Driscoll on his left in a bid to draw McFadden and Dave Kearney in off their wings to support their centres. In-their-face aggression is key.


Head to head

Eoin Reddan v Ruan Pienaar

A big night for two big-match players who will have very different thoughts racing through their minds.

For Reddan, this marks his 100th appearance in a Leinster shirt and, with a place in the PRO12 final to motivate him, too, it's going to be a special occasion for the 33-year-old Limerick-born scrum-half who left Munster for Wasps in 2005 and arrived in Dublin with a Heineken Cup and Guinness Premiership medal to show for his time in London.

Since pinning his colours to the Leinster mast in 2009 he has added significantly to his personal collection of winners' keepsakes and the prospect of another one a fortnight hence will appeal to him tonight.

Pienaar knows that if Ulster lose, his fellow-South African and good friend, Johann Muller, will have played his last game. Having worked so hard to get back for this following his shoulder injury, Pienaar will not want that effort to have been for nothing. He really wants to win a trophy for Ulster and for Muller.

Outstanding players, both highly motivated.

Jamie Heaslip v Roger Wilson

The manner in which the battle between the two men playing in the middle of the respective teams' back rows shapes up will tell you all you need to know about how the war is going.

The No 8 with the ball in his hands more often than his opposite number over the 80 minutes will be the one with a final to look forward to at the end of the month.

There is history here, with Wilson haunted by the memory of a head to head three years ago when, playing for Northampton Saints at Twickenham, Leinster fought back from 22-6 down at half-time to win 33-22, with Heaslip central to the stunning recovery.

The Naas man has been Wilson's Nemesis, a fact reflected in their career details. Wilson (32) has played 153 games for Ulster, with a Celtic League title in 2006 being all he has to show for his years of service. In 2005 he won his only Ireland cap. In contrast, 30-year-old Heaslip boasts 65 Ireland caps, five Lions Tests and every honour going with Leinster, three Heineken Cups included.

Devin Toner v Johann Muller

Battle of the Giants, indeed! Toner – Leinster's towering 6ft 11ins lock forward – makes 6ft 7ins Muller look small in comparison. Now that's just ridiculous.

But while the totemic Toner may have height on his side, he will be going some tonight to match Ulster's talismanic skipper when it gets down to heart, desire, passion and commitment.

Muller knows tthis could be his last game as a professional rugby player. But he knows, too, that victory would take his adopted province into the final, whereupon May 31 would be his last game. Leading Ulster to the title would be the perfect note on which to bow out and that is what Muller really wants. Motivated? You bet.

Toner, now 28, has finally established himself as a first-choice Ireland lock. Muller (34) has been there and done that as a Springbok. He will fight like a bear to see Ulster succeed. That is the energy and enthusiasm Toner must try to better.

Good luck with that, big fella.

Belfast Telegraph


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