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Dublin: 4 °C Thursday 20 February, 2020
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Ulster take aim at holders Leinster in all-Irish Champions Cup showdown

The two provinces go head-to-head in this evening’s sold-out European quarter-final at the Aviva Stadium.

WHAT’S RARE IS wonderful, and on one of the best weekends in the rugby calendar, Leinster and Ulster will renew provincial battle lines for just the second time on the European stage, where sub-plots abound at a sold-out Aviva Stadium [KO 5.45pm, BT Sport].

Inter-pro ties in the Heineken Champions Cup have been few and far between down through the years, with the last all-Irish clash on the continent being the 2012 final between these two provinces, while before that you have to go back to the memorable quarter-final between Munster and Ulster at Thomond and the 2006 and 2009 semi-final renewals between Leinster and Munster.

Jordan Larmour Leinster's Jordan Larmour during Friday's captain's run at the Aviva. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

So, in many ways, this is the standout fixture of the European weekend — certainly from an Irish perspective — as Dan McFarland’s Ulster travel south to take aim at the defending champions in what is their first quarter-final appearance in five years. 

All the pre-game indicators point at a Leinster victory here. Leo Cullen’s side — still the team to beat in Europe — have lost just one of their last 27 home games, they’re on an 11-game winning streak at the Aviva Stadium and have lost just once to Ulster in the last six meetings between the sides. 

Furthermore, Leinster have won seven of their last eight quarter-finals and have not lost a home game at this stage since 2005 when they were defeated by Leicester Tigers, winning all six home ties since at the quarter-final stage, including last year’s demolition of the then holders Saracens. 

But, with the disappointment of Ireland’s Six Nations adding an extra, and fascinating, dimension, to this tie, Ulster will arrive at the national stadium knowing they are the underdogs — see the 13-point bookmaker spread for Leinster — and have absolutely nothing to lose in front of 51,700 in Dublin.

Their steady, if not spectacular, form under McFarland, the return to fitness of Iain Henderson, and presence of several former Leinster players in their squad makes them a dangerous proposition for the hosts. It may not be as clear-cut as many, including the bookies, envisage it will be.

“We are very, very wary,” Cullen says of Leinster’s northern visitors. “They’ve been going well, they’ve stuck in games well. Very dogged and seem to be quite clear on what they’re trying to do and Dan has done well since he’s come in. We’ve a lot of respect for these guys.”

While Ulster meet Irish opposition in Europe for just the third time in their history, these two sides, and indeed two sets of players, are very familiar with each other. The key match-ups between Ireland team-mates adds a further piquant backdrop to the occasion, as if another layer of intrigue was required. When friends become foes. 

“It’s going to be an amazing occasion,” Cullen continues. “There have been so few of them [inter-pros] in the history of the competition. You’d think they would have occurred more often. They’re great days and all pretty special occasions.”

Cullen captained Leinster to their third European crown with victory over Ulster at Twickenham seven years ago, with Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Rob Kearney the three survivors from that team to be named in the matchday 23 this evening, while Ulster have one in captain Rory Best. 

Rory Best Rory Best leads Ulster into battle. Source: Matt Mackey/INPHO

The Leinster head coach’s decision to drop Kearney to the bench, instead preferring 21-year-old Jordan Larmour at fullback, is a big call for a game of this magnitude, but again underlines Cullen’s ruthless streak when it comes to team selection. The omission of Jack McGrath is another example.

Leinster are without three of their Lions, albeit for vastly contrasting reasons, as Johnny Sexton misses out through injury, Kearney has to settle for a place on the bench and again McGrath is axed for Ed Byrne, who provides the loosehead cover behind Cian Healy.

Add into the mix the absence of Robbie Henshaw, Josh van der Flier and Devin Toner, as well as the uncertainty over combinations given the short preparation window, there are suddenly question marks over the defending champions. 

“Yeah, there is a challenge, without a doubt but it is what it is,” Cullen says of finding that form and continuity after the Six Nations. “We try to prepare as best we can with the group that we have. We’ll see how guys go.

“It’s a tough challenge for sure. Ulster are a little different because they’ve probably played more of that game last week but they’ve shipped a couple of knocks as a result.”

Importantly, however, Henderson has been passed fit to start for McFarland’s side, Darren Cave has recovered from a rib issue to boost the midfield resources and former Leinster prop Marty Moore is back and intent on causing problems at scrum time. 

The significance of Henderson’s presence in the second row cannot be understated, and it provides Ulster with a major boost — both physical and psychological — ahead of kick-off. The totemic second row is absolutely central to his side’s chances of causing an upset here. 

The back row battle will be fascinating, too. Cullen has shown faith in Sean O’Brien’s fitness and big-game nous ahead of Dan Leavy at openside, while Rhys Ruddock captains Leinster in Sexton’s absence. 

The selection of O’Brien would suggest the home side will look to bully Ulster up front — run through them, rather than around them — but they will have to nullify the poaching threat the visitors possess, with Marcell Coetzee back in harness and Jordi Murphy hell-bent on haunting his old side less than a year after starring in their fourth European Cup triumph.

Behind that, Billy Burns has an opportunity to make the stage his own and Ulster are likely to look to the out-half’s excellent kicking game to earn territory for his side and test the positioning and decision-making of Larmour in the backfield, as well as Leinster’s defence out wide with Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney named on the wings.

Ulster were the most disciplined side in the pool stage conceding a competition-low 38 penalties, and their propensity to stay on the right side of referee Romain Poite will be a key factor here as their game-plan will revolve around starving Leinster of the quick and quality ball they relish, particularly on a fast Aviva Stadium track. 

Leo Cullen Leo Cullen speaking during yesterday's press conference. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“In terms of our preparation, we do not want to be boiling over prior to the game, you just want to simmer along nicely, make sure you go through all the processes you are used to doing,” McFarland says.

“In terms of the occasion itself, yes we do not have as many players who are as experienced in that kind of arena as a Leinster would, but it is where we want to be, we have got to start somewhere.

“If we are going to consistently compete for championships you have got to be playing play-off rugby, you have got to get used to those games.”

With the weather set fair, a capacity crowd of 51,700 in attendance and a place in the last four against Racing 92 or Toulouse on the line, it promises to be a rollicking evening in the capital.

The potential for the electric Larmour to light up the stage is matched by that of Stockdale, or indeed young Michael Lowry in the Ulster 15 jersey. Stuart McCloskey is a powerful weapon for the visitors in midfield, where Garry Ringrose partners Rory O’Loughlin. Ditto in the half-back stakes where John Cooney and Burns go head-to-head with Luke McGrath and Ross Byrne.

Cullen is fully aware of the threats Ulster pose to his side.  

“You talk about some of the threats that they have, so Jacob Stockdale could come up with a big moment where he could get on the outside and chip ball over the top and we might think one of our defenders is going to get it, and suddenly the ball kicks straight into his hands, he beats another defender and he’s under the posts,” he continued.

Or they come up with another big play with some of the other big players they have, someone like Marcell Coetzee can cause us a lot of problems at the breakdown if we allow him space.

“We need to make sure we’re well aware of the threats that are there and how we can actually counter-act them. So for us, that’s the way we try to prepare for all the eventualities that may occur in the game and that’s trying to give us the best chance and trying to nullify the threats of the opposition.

“The players have worked hard in putting the plan together, in conjunction with us as coaches and hopefully it’s nice and clear by now because we need to get a lot right for us to have the chance of winning the game.”

No shortage of big match-ups, no shortage of talking points. Strap yourself in.

Leinster:

15. Jordan Larmour
14. Adam Byrne
13. Garry Ringrose
12. Rory O’Loughlin
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne
9. Luke McGrath

1. Cian Healy
2. Sean Cronin
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Scott Fardy
5. James Ryan
6. Rhys Ruddock (captain)
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jack Conan

Replacements

16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Andrew Porter
19. Mick Kearney
20. Dan Leavy
21. Jamison Gibson-Park
22. Noel Reid
23. Rob Kearney.

Ulster:

15. Mike Lowry
14. Robert Baloucoune
13. Darren Cave
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rory Best (captain)
3. Marty Moore
4. Iain Henderson
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Nick Timoney
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements:

16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Wiehahn Herbst
19. Alan O’Connor
20. Sean Reidy
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Luke Marshall
23. Angus Kernohan. 

Referee: Romain Poite [France].

Murray Kinsella and Bernard Jackman look ahead to a huge weekend for the provinces in Europe and Ryan Bailey catches up with Ian Keatley on the latest episode of The42 Rugby Weekly:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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