RaboDirect Pro12: Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar return for Ulster
RaboDirect Pro12: Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar return to face Leinster in the semi-final clash
Ulster talismans Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar both return for the interprovincial RaboDirect Pro12 semi-final against Leinster at the RDS on Saturday.
Head coach Mark Anscombe makes 13 changes to the young side that shocked Munster at Thomond Park last week with full-back Craig Gilroy and loosehead prop Callum Black the only players to retain their places.
Ulster’s player of the season Andrew Trimble returns on the left wing with Tommy Bowe back on the right with a dangerous midfield combination of Jared Payne at outside centre alongside Darren Cave.
Pienaar’s return at scrum-half sets up a familiar half-back combination with Paddy Jackson.
Up front, Best’s return boosts the front row and sees his deputy Rob Herring drop to the bench while Ricky Lutton returns at tighthead.
Captain Johann Muller could may making a final farewell as he lines up in the second row alongside Iain Henderson with Robbie Diack on the blindside, Chris Henry on the openside and Roger Wilson— this week called up to a World XV squad to face South Africa in the summer—at number 8 in place of the injured Nick Williams.
Ulster have reached the play-offs in three of the last four seasons, but face the burden of no away side progressing to the Pro12 final, an indifferent run of form bringing just two wins in their last five, and the small matter of Leinster’s unbeaten home record, although they can take some hope from being the last club to win at the RDS back on 30 March 2013—their only win at the famous stadium.
Reigning champions Leinster, who defeated Ulster as the ‘away’ team at the RDS last year are into a fifth home play-off knowing a victory will set up another home final against Glasgow Warriors or Munster on 31 May.
Head coach Matt O’Connor makes eight changes from the side that scraped past Edinburgh last week, but seven of the eight forwards who started in their 22-20 win over Ulster earlier this month make the starting XV.
It’s an all Irish switch-out for the front row as Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Martin Moore come in for Jack McGrath, injured hooker Richardt Strauss and Mike Ross.
Devin Toner comes into the second row at the expense of club captain Leo Cullen, who drops to the bench, and will be partnered by South African lock Quinn Roux who is in for Mike McCarthy.
The back row sees flankers Rhys Ruddock and Shane Jennings come in for Sean O’Brien and Jordi Murphy to partner number 8, captain for the night, and the only forward to keep his place: Jamie Heaslip.
The formidable Leinster backline sees the usual combination of full-back Rob Kearney joined in the back three by his brother Dave Kearney and Fergus McFadden with Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy in midfield.
Jimmy Gopperth is again preferred to Ian Madigan at outside-half and he is partnered by the fit again Eoin Reddan, who makes his 100th appearance since joining the club in 2010.
Leinster: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy, Dave Kearney; Jimmy Gopperth, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Martin Moore, Devin Toner, Quinn Roux, Rhys Ruddock, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Sean O’Brien; Isaac Boss, Ian Madigan, Zane Kirchner
Ulster: Craig Gilroy; Tommy Bowe, Jared Payne, Darren Cave, Andrew Trimble; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Calum Black, Rory Best, Ricky Lutton, Johann Muller (captain), Iain Henderson, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Andrew Warwick, Adam Macklin, Dan Tuohy, Sean Doyle; Paul Marshall, James McKinney, Luke Marshall.
Referee: Leighton Hodges (WRU)