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Dublin: 22 °C Sunday 24 June, 2018
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Five things to watch out for when Ulster host Leinster at Ravenhill

Ulster still have to guarantee their place in the Pro12 playoffs, but there is plenty to spur Leinster players on too.

Chris Henry and Paddy Jackson can't believe how plush their new changing rooms are.
Chris Henry and Paddy Jackson can't believe how plush their new changing rooms are.
Image: ©Russell Pritchard/Presseye

THE SEASON IS nearing its finish, but that doesn’t mean it’s winding down.

Toulon and Saracens have ensured that Irish teams are focusing solely on Pro12 rugby in the closing weeks of the season and two of those provinces go head to head tomorrow evening.

In recent years, Ulster v Leinster has eaten up serious ground to become arguably the most anticipated inter-pro derby on the fixture list. So, before you settle down to soak it all in, here are some things to keep an eye out for from 7.30 onwards tomorrow evening.

Finding form

Zebre’s shock win over Ospreys tonight has made playoff qualification much, much more straight forward for Ulster – Leinster had already assured progress – and both sides will take the field with the aim of finding fluency in their attack and defensive systems in plenty of time for the semi-finals.

Ulster still need one point from their remaining games against Munster and Leinster to cement fourth place. Of course, they’ll want much more than that, but getting a win just might be made all the easier now that a big heap of pressure is lifted off their shoulders.

Centre of attention

Jared Payne is back in action, but not at fullback. The Kiwi will have much less chance of high balls being bombed his way as he has been named in the centre opposite Brian O’Driscoll.

Brian O'Driscoll Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

The match-up is made all the more intriguing as many believe Joe Schmidt to be a big admirer of Payne in midfield as opposed to the back three and so we could be watching the master taking on his successor in a green jersey.

In the front line

With the worrying news of Declan Fitzpatrick’s heart palpitation and injury to John Afoa and Ricky Lutton, the tighthead slot is being filled by Andrew Warwick. The 23-year-old is largely untested and is not a specialist in the number three jersey, moving across the front row from loosehead.

Rob Herring and Tom Court will provide less of a worry for Ulster fans. But with Rory Best still out injured, the prospect of Leinster’s six Ireland international front rows playing some part in the game sets a serious challenge for Ulster.

The old number 10 dilemma

Paddy Jackson and Ian Madigan will stand opposite one another again tomorrow. And neither will need reminding that Joe Schmidt will be watching on and pencilling names in for his starting line-ups against Argentina.

Jackson can only have been frustrated by his time under Schmidt so far, three times finding himself omitted from matchday squads despite being name-checked as the country’s second best out-half behind Jonathan Sexton.

Ian Madigan, Joe Schmidt and Paddy Jackson 12/11/2013 Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Tomorrow will be Jackson’s first chance to take on Ian Madigan in a number 10 head-to-head since Ulster’s in at the RDS last season. And with Ruan Pienaar out injured, all of the goal-kicking and game management will rest in Jackson’s hands.

On the other side of the coin, Madigan will know this game is his best chance of making his name Matt O’Connor’s preferred option for the Pro12 semi-final.

Sense of occasion

Ulster showed few signs of nerves during the Heineken Cup quarter-final when the occasion and fanfare around the new stand could easily have distracted the players on the pitch.

Friday night at Ravenhill will not only be the stadium’s official opening, but in all likelihood it will be (among others) captain Johann Muller’s last game at the venue and nobody involved with the province will want to see him go out on anything other than an enormous high.

Johann Muller celebrates with fans Source: Presseye/Darren Kidd/INPHO

From day one, Mark Anscombe has said that winning a trophy was the only way he wished to measure success and that lust for silverware has only intensified as this season has wore on.

Anscombe and Ulster will hope that home advantage tomorrow can help them lay down a big statement of intent that they are capable of going to another Pro12, final and this time winning it.

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Sean Farrell

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