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Leinster look to close in on play-off place
Scrum.com
April 16, 2010
Ireland skipper Brian O'Driscoll shares a joke with fly-half Jonathan Sexton during training in Greystones, County Wicklow, March 9, 2010
Leinster will be without Ireland duo Brian O'Driscoll and Jonathan Sexton for their pivotal clash with Ospreys © PA Photos
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Tournaments/Tours: Magners League

The Magners League play-off picture should be a lot clearer after this weekend's action, with leaders Leinster on the verge of becoming the first side to guarantee themselves a top-four finish.

Michael Cheika's men solidified their position at the summit of the standings with a tight but thoroughly deserved victory over Munster at Thomond Park in round 16 a fortnight ago. Indeed, Leinster now enjoy a four-point advantage over their closest challenges, the Ospreys, having played one game less.

However, given their continued involvement in European competition, they will be keen to book their play-off ticket as quickly as possibly, not least because it would allow them to rest players ahead of their Heineken Cup showdown with Toulouse. Leinster's cause has not been aided, though, by the loss of some key personnel to injury, with star centre Brian O'Driscoll, Lions fullback Rob Kearney and first-choice fly-half Jonathan Sexton all having been ruled out.

Leo Cullen leads the side while Cian Healy and Mike Ross come into the starting front-row alongside John Fogarty. Shane Jennings continues in the loose-trio alongside fellow Ireland internationals Kevin McLaughlin and Jamie Heaslip.

Shaun Berne partners Eoin Reddan at half-back, while Gordon D'Arcy is joined by Fergus McFadden in the centres for his 15th appearance of the season. Girvan Dempsey starts at fullback in a back three which also includes Shane Horgan and Isa Nacewa.

Still, the province is squaring up to an Ospreys side that is sure to be feeling a tad jaded after a week in which they racked up plenty of air miles after travelling to San Sebastian, where they suffered a heartbreaking Heineken Cup exit at the hands of Biarritz, and then on to Belfast for a rescheduled Magners League meeting with Ulster, whom they defeated 38-27 in an exciting encounter.

Head coach Sean Holley has made seven changes to his starting side for the clash at the RDS. In the backs Nikki Walker and Andrew Bishop replace Tommy Bowe and James Hook respectively while Jamie Butbrown starts at scrum-half ahead of Mike Phillips, who drops to the bench. In the front-row Ed Shervington and Paul James start alongside Adam Jones, who retains his place to anchor the scrum while in other changes in the pack Alun Wyn Jones and Filo Tiatia also start. Jerry Collins will lead the as club captain Ryan Jones is also on the bench.

Elsewhere, Munster will be feeling pretty good about themselves once more after putting the pain of that home reversal against Leinster behind them by progressing to the last four of the Heineken Cup with a fine victory over Northampton Saints last Saturday.

However, their opponents this weekend, Connacht, are hardly wanting for confidence at the moment after edging out Bourgoin in an absorbing European Challenge Cup quarter-final clash at the Sportsground last weekend. There is now a real sense of belief in Galway that the Westerners are poised to finally secure a place in the Heineken Cup, one way or another.

And that belief sees Michael Bradley keep faith with 14 of the 15 that dismissed the French Top 14 outfit last weekend, with Bernie Upton replacing Michael McCarthy in the second-row. Drop-goal hero Miah Nikora remains on the bench with Ian Keatley starting in the pivot, John Muldoon captains the side.

Connacht will draw further confidence when they see the Munster teamsheet, after Tony McGahan named an experimental side for the trip west. Ireland u-20 internationals Simon Zebo and Danny Barnes get first starts on the wing, while Thomond out-half Declan Cusack starts at out-half. The Munster pack is far more established, with James Coughlan, Mick O'Driscoll and Tony Buckley looking to lend some experience.

The Dragons are five points off a play-off berth but they have not yet given up on sneaking into the top four. However, if they are to do so they simply have to beat Edinburgh at Rodney Parade on Sunday. It will certainly be interesting to see how Edinburgh respond after blowing a glorious opportunity to edge closer to a home draw in the play-offs by succumbing to a late Miah Nikora penalty in their clash with Connacht last time out.

Scotland hooker Ross Ford will make his first start since the Six Nations for Edinburgh in one of two changes to the side narrowly beaten at Connacht with Ross Rennie also returning at openside flanker. Ford's recall means Andrew Kelly has to make do with a place on the bench. In related news, vice-captain Allister Hogg has now resumed competitive action - after representing Watsonians at the Melrose Sevens last weekend - and the Scotland back row is expected to continue his comeback from hip surgery for the Myreside-based club on Saturday.

Ashley Smith comes into the Dragons' side with Tom Riley moving to the bench while the back row sees the return of Joe Bearman, who replaces Andrew Coombs.

Glasgow are hoping that they can secure the play-off place that their vastly-improved form this season warrants and they will put themselves in a fine position to do just that if they can dispose of an Ulster side that will doubtless be somewhat battle-weary after Tuesday's defeat at home to the Ospreys. However, this is a massive match for the visitors in terms of Heineken Cup qualification as they are now just four points above provincial rivals Connacht, having played one game more than Michael Bradley's men.

Ulster make eight changes with Simon Danielli starting at fullback, shifting from the wing, while Nevin Spence and Ian Humphreys also slot into the backline. Paul Marshall replaces Isaac Boss at scrum-half. There's a new-look front-row as Tom Court, Andi Kyriacou and Declan Fitzpatrick pack down while Ryan Caldwell comes into the second-row, he replaces Dan Tuohy. BJ Botha, Boss and Niall O'Connor are all on the bench.

Glasgow, though, have been buoyed by the return of openside flanker John Barclay, who has recovered from the stomach bug which forced him to pull out of the starting line-up for the game against the Dragons a fortnight ago.

Meanwhile, the Cardiff Blues are, mathematically at least, still in play-off contention and they looked mightily impressive in last weekend's European Challenge Cup rout of Newcastle Falcons at Kingston Park. However, while they should have too much for the hapless Scarlets, who are now in very real danger of finishing bottom after seeing their advantage over basement boys Connacht reduced to just two points, Dai Young's men have probably already accepted that Europe now represents their only chance of lifting some silverware this term. Paul Tito and Gareth Williams come into the side, while Gethin Jenkins makes his 100th appearance for the club.

In Scarlets team news the Wales international hooker Matthew Rees is not fit due to a minor neck injury, he's replaced by Ken Owens. Daniel Evans starts at full-back ahead of Rhys Priestland who is on the bench, Rhys Thomas starts at tighthead prop, Tavis Knoyle gets the scrum-half jersey and Josh Turnbull comes in at flank with Rob McCusker on the bench.

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