Friday 21 September 2018

Girv' out to swerve past Ulster

Leinster lineout king Toner plans to undermine Ulster's Van der Merwe

Blues lock Devin Toner Photo: Sportsfile
Blues lock Devin Toner Photo: Sportsfile
Leinster backs coach Girvan Dempsey during squad training this week at UCD Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster have their destiny covered in the palms of their hands. They just have to close it out.

It is not so much a firm grip as a tentative hold with Connacht trailing in second on points difference, Glasgow in third by two and Ulster, their hosts tomorrow, eight further back with two rounds still to go.

The leaders could quite easily drop from first to third, from the comfort and undoubted advantage of a home semi-final to a treacherous away one, should they come out second best at The Kingspan Stadium.

These are the fine margins coaches and players reach for when explaining victory and/or defeat.

For their part, Ulster are just two points above The Scarlets on the PRO12 ladder as they cling to the possibility of life beyond that of the regular season.

There is so much on the line for Leinster and Ulster, now that Europe has moved on without them.

"That's it, I think you look to the game on Saturday and that's why it's so big," said Leinster backs coach Girvan Dempsey.

Silverware is a basic requirement for the former; a necessary stage in the development of the latter.

This is one that will not come down to 'whose need is greater.'


It will simply be decided by which skills-set is superior and which can play closest to their potential in what will be a Belfast pressure cooker.

"We know this Saturday against Ulster is huge," he continued.

"We know we have to perform and get a result because you look at that group and obviously Ulster are six points back from Glasgow and, even then, Scarlets are on their heels.

"So it's a great place for us to be, to be in control of that with Ulster away and then Treviso at home."

Leinster know four points up north will almost guarantee them a return to The RDS for the semi-final.

This is the state of the province, even though Benetton Treviso could arrive in Dublin on Saturday week with their Champions Cup qualification on a knife edge.

On the last day, the real drama is likely to take place out West where the other home semi-final will be down for decision.

"The permutations that could come about in that final game between Connacht and Glasgow in Galway is massive and could impact on the whole shake-up of the league," said the former Ireland full-back.

"You look further down the table and you've even got Ospreys looking for a Champions Cup spot.

"But it's a good spot for us that we're in control of it and going to Belfast in a good place."

Ulster were able to take advantage of a down-and-out Leinster late last season.

The 2014 champions were reduced to a shambles as they failed to make the minimum expectation of a semi-final.

Ireland second row Devin Toner is keen to keep up the appearance of a province on the way back up.

Still, Director of Rugby Les Kiss is showing signs of coming to grips with his first shot as the man with a plan.

"Yeah, they're getting back into it now," said Toner.

"Obviously, they had a great result against Zebre and I think they've only lost twice (at home) in the league this year and by very, very narrow margins."

Certainly, Munster (9-7) and The Scarlets (21-20) have been able to do what nine others could not.

Ulster know the stakes have rocketed. They have to produce tomorrow or face the hard-to-please wrath of a demanding support base.

The set-piece - scrum and lineout - will be central to the outcome in what is usually a fierce battle.

Leinster have almost all of their Ireland weapons available for what should be a powerful scrum unit as Ulster will have to adapt without their cornerstone, Wiehahn Herbst.

The home province will look to counter with a high-firing lineout orchestrated by Franco van der Merwe.

The arrival of the South African and his influence on Ulster has not met with the same euphoria as that of Johann Muller.

"Franco slotted in after Johann and kept on doing what they were doing," Toner pointed out. "I would say Johan put a lot of the structures in place around the lineout and forward play.

"I can't talk about how he fits into the team environment behind closed doors.

"He knows how to control the lineout and they have a good record there."

The Leinster lighthouse knows this area is a strike point for Ulster and to make a mess out of it would go a long way towards derailing the options open to Paddy Jackson.

When the heat comes on, Van der Merwe does not turn from it.

He is known to take more on as the pressure pours on.

"It is the same with any caller, to be honest," added Toner.

"If the stuff is hitting the fan, you like to back yourself. The majority of callers would do it."

Leinster will look to cripple Ulster's entry points into the game, thereby seizing the level of control which Jonathan Sexton will translate into chances created and points taken.

Ulster v Leinster, tomorrow (KO 3.0), Sky Sports 1

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