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Dublin: 12 °C Tuesday 19 March, 2019
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Youthful selection makes meeting of Leinster and Ulster a Class of 2016 reunion

Seven of the Ireland team that made it to the World U20 Championship final in action at the RDS tonight.

THE TIMING OF this final inter-pro derby of the regular season block means a sold-out RDS will effectively witness two second-string sides take to the field, but that’s not to say there is a shortage of piquant subplots.

A blend of experience, youth and academy talent sprinkled across both selections adds a different and compelling dimension to this evening’s round 13 encounter in Dublin [KO 5.15pm, eir Sport/Premier Sport], as both Leinster and Ulster proceed with one eye firmly on next week’s season-defining European action.

Scott Penny Scott Penny will be hoping to impress again tonight. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

Perhaps the most fascinating component to this fixture is the reunion of no fewer than seven members of the Ireland squad that got to the World U20 Championship final two summers ago, although two of the highest-profile graduates from that side — Jacob Stockdale and James Ryan — are not involved for their respective provinces. 

For Leinster, who make 14 changes in personnel from last weekend’s defeat to Munster, Conor O’Brien, Andrew Porter and Max Deegan — voted player of that tournament  — are all handed starting opportunities, while Jimmy O’Brien, another member of the class of 2016, is named among the replacements. 

22-year-old Conor O’Brien partners Noel Reid in the Leinster midfield again this evening in what will be his seventh appearance of the season, while Ireland international Porter has since switched from loosehead to tighthead with considerable success in the intervening two years. 

Deegan, meanwhile, will relish his opportunity at the back of the scrum after appearing to fall behind Caelan Doris — last year’s Ireland U20s skipper — in Leinster’s number eight pecking order at this start of this season, the former St Michael’s College man winning his 32nd senior appearance in blue. 

Just as Leinster have wrapped their frontline internationals in cotton wool in preparation of the visit of Toulouse, there is no surprise Dan McFarland has dispatched a youthful Ulster side to the capital as the northern province look ahead to their showdown with Racing 92.

It means Ulster’s squad depth will be placed under firm examination at the RDS, with their matchday 23 containing three players from the aforementioned Irish U20 team which was coached by Nigel Carolan, while two uncapped players are named on the visitors’ bench.

Johnny McPhillips is set for just his second start for the province in the out-half position, while hooker Adam McBurney gets a rare opportunity to show what he can do in the absence of Rory Best and Rob Herring. 

There is also a first start of the campaign for Greg Jones against his native province after he took up a place in the Ulster academy following the completion of his academic studies in UCD.

The back row will come up against his former school team-mate Porter, with the pair part of the recent talent coming out of St Andrew’s College, the alma mater of Felix Jones, Ben Marshall and Jordan Larmour among others. 

While Leinster can count on the experience of the returning Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath, in addition to Sean Cronin and Porter completing a Grand Slam-winning front row, Ulster aren’t quite as well stocked in that department and it could be a long evening for their young side if the hosts are in the right mood.

Johnny McPhillips It'll be a big test of Johnny McPhillips' credentials. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

McFarland includes four academy players in his XV in fullback Michael Lowry, centre James Hume, wing Angus Kernohan and second row Matthew Dalton, with Alan O’Connor captaining the side from the engine room.

“We didn’t know too much about their team at the start of the week so we were analysing the whole squad,” Kearney, who captains Leinster, said.

“They have turned a little bit of a corner in the last seven weeks, they are playing some pretty good rugby and becoming competitive. Some of them have played a lot, some European rugby and they will be looking to come down and put in a good performance ahead of Racing for them next week.

“We can’t control what squad they have, they have to manage and rotate too. This week has been about ourselves given what happened last week in Limerick.”

Both sides suffered derby defeats last weekend, but Leinster will be hurting more from their first loss in nine Pro14 outings to Munster, even if Noel Reid is the only player retained in Cullen’s starting XV this week.

With James Lowe suspended, Barry Daly returns from a lengthy layoff to start in the back three alongside Kearney and Adam Byrne, while Ciaran Frawley is preferred to Ross Byrne at out-half. 

It could be a straight shootout between Byrne and Daly for a starting berth against Toulouse a week on Saturday in the absence of Lowe. 

There’s also huge excitement over the talent of 19-year-old Scott Penny in the back row, who will win his third cap after making his debut against Ospreys back in November, while Oisin Dowling could make his first senior appearance off the bench.

“It’s amazing to think he’s just out of school,” Cullen said of openside Penny.

“Physically, he looks older than some of the other lads out of school, when you see him in the flesh. He’s well put together. Maybe he’s able to cope with a bit more of a load so you’re just seeing what he can be exposed to.

“He doesn’t really put a foot wrong. He understands the game. He seems to be diligent and gets all the calls. For a young guy, usually, it takes a bit of time for them to be able to do that.

“He’s able to process all that incredibly well. He’s always got in for a couple of tries. He scored a number of tries in that ‘A’ campaign, and he’s good, he’s always around the ball. He’s a genuine seven. It looks like he has a bright future ahead of him.”

No shortage of young talent on show, then, and Cullen will be hoping those players — as well as the likes of Kearney, McGrath and Porter who are all seeking minutes — can gel together and seize their opportunity.

Rob Kearney Kearney captains Leinster for the second time. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Despite defeat last time out, the defending Pro14 champions have a sizable 16-point lead at the top of Conference B and a continuation of their strong recent record over their northern rivals — Leinster have lost just one of the last five meetings — will ensure they take important winning momentum into Toulouse.

Ulster, meanwhile, slipped up in Connacht, a result which extended their three-year winless streak in away derby games and it’s hard to envisage them ending that unwanted record in front of a full house at the RDS later, particularly as they’ve won just twice on the road in the league this term.  

Furthermore, the only time that Ulster have beaten Leinster in Dublin in the Pro14 was back in March 2013, with their overall league record against Cullen’s side standing at played 154, lost 79, won 60, drawn 15. 

“They are keen and excited,” defence coach Jared Payne said of the mood in the Ulster camp. “It’s a great chance isn’t it? People don’t expect much from the group. There’s no better opportunity to play without fear and it’s a pretty good place to be.”

Whether Ulster remain in a good place come teatime this evening remains to be seen as their young players face one of the sternest tests since graduating to the professional game.

Leinster:

15. Rob Kearney (captain)
14. Adam Byrne
13. Conor O’Brien
12. Noel Reid
11. Barry Daly
10. Ciaran Frawley
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath
2. Sean Cronin
3. Andrew Porter
4. Ross Molony
5. Mick Kearney
6. Josh Murphy
7. Scott Penny
8. Max Deegan

Replacements:

16. James Tracy
17. Ed Byrne
18. Michael Bent
19. Oisin Dowling
20. Caelan Doris
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ross Byrne
23. Jimmy O’Brien.

Ulster:

15. Michael Lowry
14. Rob Lyttle
13. Darren Cave
12. James Hume
11. Angus Kernohan
10. Johnny McPhillips
9. Dave Shanahan

1. Kyle McCall
2. Adam McBurney
3. Wiehahn Herbst
4. Matthew Dalton
5. Alan O’Connor (captain)
6. Greg Jones
7. Sean Reidy
8. Nick Timoney

Replacements:

16. John Andrew
17. Andrew Warwick
18. Tom O’Toole
19. Caleb Montgomery
20. Clive Ross
21. Jonny Stewart
22. Bruce Houston
23. Peter Nelson.

Referee: Andrew Brace [IRFU].

Gavan Casey, Murray Kinsella and Andy Dunne preview the weekend’s action:


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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Ryan Bailey

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