By Brendan Cole
Leinster face an tough task against a Glasgow team that has consistently performed well in this competition over the last number of seasons and continues to do so despite the loss of a few big names to foreign clubs.
There has been less than a score in it on the two occasions the sides have met so far this year, and Glagow’s demolition of Munster showed them to be in rude health.
But Leinster have also recovered from a mild post-Six Nations slump and field a formidable side.
The backline is particularly strong, though Ian Madigan is unlucky to miss out.
Glasgow may fancy getting among Leinster’s pack, though strong set-pieces, with excellent scrum and lineout specialists in the forwards, should enable them to absorb a certain amount of pressure.
Jonathan Sexton’s ability to create situations, and the razor sharp creativity and finishing outside him, should do the rest.
After a brilliant first half of the season, Ulster looked a certainty to be one of the main players at this stage of the season.
And though their form dipped in February and March, they have quietly put things right over the last four games with good wins over Leinster, Dragons, Connacht and Cardiff Blues; the Heineken Cup exit against Saracens was their only loss since the end of March.
A good injury profile and the return from international duty of a few key players undoubtedly helped Mark Anscombe’s men to right the ship ahead of the key portion of the season.
But they are vulnerable in some key positions again, and nowhere more than at tighthead prop, where John Afoa misses out with a hamstring problem.
That could prove vital as the tried and trusted method of beating the Llanelli Scarlets is through the pack, particularly the scrum. Ulster put their faith in Declan Fitzpatrick with the promising Ricky Lutton providing back-up from the bench.
They should have enough to break even and possibly put Ulster on the front foot here and there, but the dominant performance Afoa is capable of is probably outside the compass of the Ulster scrum.
Ulster also field an inexperienced duo at outhalf and centre. Paddy Jackson would not be human if the Six Nations outhalf fiasco had not affected his confidence.
Alongside at 12, Stuart Olding is even less experienced having been promoted out of the under-20 setup in the absence of Luke Marshall, who is continuing to recover from a series of concussions that began while he was on international duty.
The tragic loss of Nevin Spence last September has also denied Ulster a top-class talent in the position.
Olding, like Jackson, is on the small side but has the skills to bring Ulster’s fearsome back three of Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe.
Ruan Pienaar’s presence at scrumhalf should mean the 10-12 pair get enough time and space to get their decisions and execution right.
Ulster also have some excellent operators in the pack with Rory Best and Chris Henry capable of making life difficult when the Scarlets have the ball, and the likes of Nick Williams able to crack open through even the best-drilled defensive structures.
Across the whole squad, Ulster are an excellent tackling team and that should mean added pressure on the Scarlets.
That could prove vital as the Scarlets strength is in their big backline, with Jon Davies and George North to the fore, and the recently returned Rhys Priestland’s ability to release them. The Wales out-half is a hugely under-rated passer of the ball but his presence gives the Scarlets the ability to go wide to the big men quickly.
If Afoa was present, it would be hard to see Ulster failing to continue their winning ways. Even in his absence, the selection of Ruan Pienaar at nine hints that Ulster still fancy themselves to get on top in general play in the pack. There should still be enough steel in that area to get the job done.
Rabo PRO12 semi-final predictions:
Ulster 23-11 Llanelli Scarlets
Leinster 32-21 Glasgow Warriors