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Sunday 4 December 2016

Leinster can play with freedom for glory

Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster’s Jonathan Sexton Photo: Sportsfile

The last few weeks have seen the Pro 12 suddenly spring to life with plenty of teams registering loads of tries and there are several permutations still to play for in the final two weekends, including European qualification spaces for next season.

For those five remaining teams vying for a home semi-final berth we will presume that Connacht will overcome Benetton Treviso away tonight, and that tomorrow Glasgow will defeat lowly Zebre at home.

Automatic

But with just three points separating both the Italian sides for the one automatic Italian qualification place in Europe, Benetton will want to pull out all the stops at home, and with Pat Lam already missing the likes of Bundee Aki and Denis Buckley the men from the west cannot afford to be complacent.

Ulster really need to take some serious points off leaders Leinster in what is going to be an old fashioned eight-point turnaround game in Belfast tomorrow (Kingspan Stadium, 3.0).

Ulster must win and retain a small gap over the chasing Scarlets, for the last weekend, Leinster on the other hand will see this as a golden opportunity to knockout one of their serious derby rivals.

It should be a humdinger.

Ulster have baffled myself and others over the years, and for all their marquee signings and big bucks spending they have never really reached the heights that they should have.

Despite a series of high profile international signings and a succession of foreign coaches they have still come up short, something that has resonated with their popular captain Rory Best.

Ulster will be desperate to at least get into the last four of this competition. But Leinster coach Leo Cullen is equally determined to show that Leinster are still the top province in this country. And as soon as Leinster dropped out of the European Champions Cup, Cullen set about navigating his team into another Pro 12 final.

Even a bonus point loss should be enough for Leinster to secure a home semi-final spot given that you would expect them to beat Zebre next week, but Cullen will want to make sure that his team continues to win games and build confidence and momentum before the semi-final stages.

Cullen is in the enviable position that he has been able to man-manage some of his key players like Johnny Sexton and Jamie Heaslip over the past couple of weeks, and provided they don't get injured this week or next his big name players will be well rested come finals weekend.

For Ulster it is a must-win game and therefore they do not have that luxury. They will miss big Kiwi No 8 Nick Williams who in previous years has done some serious damage with ball in hand, but will welcome back Irish midfielder Stuart Mc Closkey.

Two weeks ago against Edinburgh Leinster showed more in attack than they had against Munster the week previously, and raced out to what we thought should have been an unassailable lead early in the second half.

Promising

Leinster players to shine that day were England-bound midfielder Ben T'eo, winger Luke Fitzgerald, outstanding flanker Josh van de Flier and promising second row Ross Malony who has in many regards been my Leinster 'find of the season'.

Fergus McFadden will be forced to sit out this match after suspension for a reckless tackle, and depending on selections it could yet spell an unfortunate end to his season.

While it was clearly not intentional, it did not look great on the television replays, and the decision of the minimal punishment was fair.

Against Edinburgh Leinster outhalf Ian Madigan was dangerous in broken play, but a little risky at times for Cullen's liking with some badly telegraphed and mistimed passes, but that is what you get with Madigan, and exciting talent that likes to play the game on the edge. Sexton will bring a sense of calm to the game.

Cullen and his defence guru Kurt McQuilkin will not be happy that Leinster almost let Edinburgh back into the game simply by a serious lack of concentration, and that will have been drilled into the Leinster team during the week.

Not for the first time this season Leinster faded in the last quarter of the match, and they need to be more focused for the entire 80-plus minutes tomorrow to beat an Ulster side that will surely perform above themselves on home turf.

Leinster do have the luxury of still being able to lose this match, and that may just allow them to relax a little more than Ulster who will be conscious that a loss against Leinster at home and a tricky last game against The Ospreys could spell yet another disappointing season.

Not for the first time this season Leinster faded in the last quarter.

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