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Leinster, Munster register CL wins over provincial rivals

The fact that Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin decided to pitch up in Dublin minus a number of high-profile players such as Stephen Ferris, Paddy Wallace, Andrew Trimble and Tom Court, came as a pretty clear indication that this Celtic League game wasn't necessarily targeted by Ulster as one they had to win.

Never having managed a league double over their southern rivals, and having gone 10 years without a victory in Dublin, the squad rotation wasn't all that surprising in the circumstances. Add Leinster's current impressive form to the mix, as well as a different approach from Michael Cheika who by contrast went for a virtual full-strength line-up, and there was an air of inevitability about the result.

With CJ van der Linde recovering from a calf injury, Stan Wright's inclusion at tight head and Malcolm O'Kelly coming in for Nathan Hines were the only changes from the recent European Cup demolition of the Scarlets.

But once Leinster got their heads in front with tries by Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip, they failed to press home the advantage. Instead of pushing on for a bonus point, they dropped down a gear much to coach Cheika's dissatisfaction.

"We didn't play well the whole game. We were indisciplined in defense and we gave away penalties when we didn't need to. If you went into our dressing room, it'd be like we'd lost. That's not the standard we want to have and we know that."

Because they couldn't add to their try tally, Leinster's lack of a bonus point meant they missed an opportunity to join Glasgow at the top of the table, but currently in second place going into this weekend's series of games, they are in a strong position to reach the end-of-season play-offs.

Kearney and Wright both made early inroads into the visitors' territory, but the first real try-scoring opportunity came at the other end when Simon Danielli exposed some slack Sean O'Brien defending off a line-out. It looked for a moment like the powerful wing might go all the way as he arced around Shane Horgan, however, Eoin Reddan did well to get back to snuff out the threat.

Ulster then got what their positive approach deserved just after the half-hour mark when Niall O'Connor, who had pulled his first penalty attempt wide, struck the second on the money to level the scores at 3-3.

Still, Leinster were undeterred by the concession and within a minute, Kevin McLaughlin won a line-out, Gordon D'Arcy shuffled into the midfield traffic and produced a sublime offload which Kearney finished with an unstoppable combination of timing and the perfect running line. D'Arcy's assist looked a shade forward, but in mitigation, referee George Clancy was in a good position to make the call and Shaun Berne tapped over the simple conversion to make it 10-3 at the changeover.

If O'Connor had picked up an injury during the first half, it hadn't been apparent, so Ian Humphreys' arrival off the bench at the start of the second half was hardly a vote of confidence in his young understudy. With the jury still emphatically out on Humphreys' defensive capability, it surely wasn't a coincidence that Leinster immediately sent Horgan barrelling down the number 10 channel.

The winners quickly increased their lead when after his own towering kick, Kearney this time delivered the offload to Heaslip who surged away down the touchline for another try. If Heaslip had a real head of steam up when the rookie full-back, Jamie Smith, moved in for the tackle, it was a poor one-on-one attempt which was predictably swatted away.

Berne, whose place kicking technique looks increasingly suspect, was unable to add the extras from close range, however, Leinster now clearly had the upper hand.

They should have pressed home that advantage, but the line-out suffered once the woefully inaccurate Bernard Jackman came on, and instead it was Ulster who produced most of the enterprise in the final quarter with Danielli, Timosi Nagusa and sub Jonny Shiels carving open the opposition from broken play.

Meanwhile, Leinster have confirmed that New Zealander, Josef Schmidt, is to replace Cheika as head coach at the end of the season. Following Cheika's decision not to renew his contract at the end of a successful five-year spell, Schmidt had been in the frame as a contender and will now leave his post as assistant coach at French club, Clermont Auvergne, to join the European champions next summer. The 44-year-old, who has had previous spells in New Zealand at Auckland and Bay of Plenty has signed a three-season deal.

Following their magnificent European Cup victory over Perpignan, Munster could afford to make as many as 13 changes and still come away from Thomond Park with a resounding 35-3 win against bottom of the table Connacht.

By resting the likes of Paul O'Connell, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, David Wallace and Doug Howlett, coach Tony McGahan fielded a mostly second-string side, but still they had too much firepower for Connacht.

Captained by Ronan O'Gara, Munster secured the four-try bonus point with touchdowns by Damien Varley, Ian Dowling, Paul Warwick and Jean de Villiers to move into joint third place in the Celtic League standings.

"It's the way we like to keep things going," said McGahan. "When there's such a big group of players, you really need to provide opportunities for the squad to shine and I thought we did that quite well last season. We have plenty of faith in them, I thought they were tremendous."

Connacht, for their part, decided to rest Sean Cronin, Frank Murphy, Fionn Carr and captain, John Muldoon, which suggested that they are targeting Saturday's match against Leinster in Galway. They battled tenaciously for much of the first half, but simply couldn't cope with Munster's class as they trailed 20-3 at the interval.

The only black mark on an otherwise emphatic display was a neck injury to full-back Felix Jones who was stretchered off after just 15 minutes. The highly promising Ireland A player damaged ligaments and was detained in hospital for several days following the accidental collision with Connacht's Jonny O'Connor.

Jones's injury came following news that international back row, Denis Leamy, would probably miss the remainder of the season after damaging his knee in the closing minutes of the victory over Perpignan. Leamy underwent surgery and will definitely be out of action during the Six Nations as Ireland defend their Grand Slam title.

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