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Ulster must play the territory to avoid suffocation of inevitable Leinster backlash

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey looked ahead to tonight’s top-of-the-table clash on our Rugby Weekly podcast.

James Ryan tackles former team-mate Jack McGrath, now of Ulster.
James Ryan tackles former team-mate Jack McGrath, now of Ulster.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Updated Jan 8th 2021, 8:30 AM

IT’S RARE THAT the top two teams in a conference and, indeed, the two teams with the most match points in the Guinness Pro14 overall, enter a summit meeting with so much to prove, and so many areas in which to improve.

For Leinster, the very notion of a second home defeat on the spin is intolerable. For Ulster, the opportunity to capitalise on some of the frailties exhibited by an admittedly different-looking Leinster against Connacht, and the chance of a statement win in Dublin, is tantalising.

Dan McFarland’s men lead the champions by 10 points in Conference A, albeit Leinster have two games in hand with which they may be able to make serious inroads into that particular deficit. They’ll aim to claw half of it back tonight, of course, with the couple of games still to spare, but Ulster’s 10-from-10 run in the competition makes them about as formidable an outfit as Leinster are likely to meet on this side of the Champions Cup knockout stages.

Interpros are rarely so finely poised, and this weekend’s pair of all-Irish fixtures made for a sizeable chunk of Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey’s chat on this week’s The42 Rugby Weekly.

Here’s a small written snippet of the Leinster-Ulster portion of Thursday’s episode and, to whet the appetite further, you can listen to the full podcast and subscribe for future episodes on your preferred podcast app. (The full named teams, if you missed their announcements yesterday, are also included towards the bottom of this article.)

billy-burns-is-tackled-by-cian-healy-and-garry-ringrose Billy Burns takes on Cian Healy and Garry Ringrose. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Murray Kinsella: “Connacht forced Leinster into tough situations and they made bad decisions. They got run into touch four or five times, maybe, which is kind of unacceptable at that level of the game. The lineout again struggled. There are concerns there for them that, maybe, when you’re cruising past other teams, just get glossed over. So, in a way it’s a healthy thing for Leinster I think.

Bernard Jackman: “I think the question mark around Leinster would be: the game they’re playing at the moment, particularly since lockdown, is about getting in front and then pressuring the opposition and capitalising on their mistakes. In the two games they’ve lost [in the last 11: Saracens and Connacht], the opposition have gotten really fast starts. It affected how Leinster were able to play and that ‘Plan B’, as such, hasn’t looked as fluid when they’re chasing the game, when they can’t kick to the corners and and find that space in behind, get opportunities in the 22′ and force a poor exit and come back at the opposition — because the opposition have the lead and the mindset changes completely.

“From a Leinster point of view, Leo [Cullen] and Stuart [Lancaster] learned a lot off that Saracens defeat but they haven’t had a chance to implement [changes] with their starting team. I don’t think losing a game is actually a bad thing if it helps you to become a more complete team.

“And it’s so hard to guard against complacency, which they say is a cancer in sport, when you’re winning every game with a bonus point. I thought Leinster did look a little bit complacent [against Connacht] early doors. Connacht got into them and they were just a little bit out of sync. It wouldn’t have been the case that they underestimated Connacht but it would have been just the fact that they’ve been winning so many games. The game against Munster being called off a week prior also might have meant they had a different prep than normal. Ultimately, they were a little bit out of sorts and Connacht exploited it.

“And that’s the challenge for Ulster: to get ahead early, make a fast start on Friday night and see what Leinster do then. But do I think it’ll be a different story — there’ll be a massive backlash, physically, from Leinster.”

james-hume-celebrates-scoring-his-sides-first-try James Hume scores his try in last season's Pro14 final. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Murray: “I think Ulster will be focused on winning territory early on — and Connacht showed the value of that, as did Saracens, against Leinster: not overplaying in your own half, not getting over-excited about potential opportunities unless they’re very much on, and not giving Leinster what they want: they just want to be down in your 22′ and using their physical prowess to wear you down. They can play many different ways at Leinster but that is a kind of constant formula for them, so I’d imagine there’ll be a territorial focus by Ulster.

“Last time they won down there [in Dublin] was March 2013 when they had that really strong team — Ulster actually beat Leinster home and away in the regular season that year. So, it would be a massive statement for this Ulster team. Yeah, there might be a bit of vulnerability there but Leinster are bringing back some really good players. Their injury list is lengthy but the likes of James Ryan et cetera returning, even though they didn’t play last week, would have been pissed off by it; that little bit of a mental slip, that little bit of complacency that’s seen as unacceptable in that environment. I think there’ll be a big response from them.

Bernard: “But if you’re Dan [McFarland], you’re saying, ‘Lookit, let’s test them. Let’s test how quickly they can readjust.’ Whoever plays for Leinster at 10 (Johnny Sexton, as was later confirmed) won’t have played for a while, which is something Ulster can take comfort from.

“I looked back on the final of the Pro14 to send some clips in for TV. Ulster got a great start with James Hume’s brilliant try. 5-0, they miss the conversion, and a couple of sloppy moments of play give Leinster a chance to score pretty quickly and Leinster score with James Lowe. 7-5 so, now, Leinster have scoreboard pressure. Ulster didn’t look after the ball in the 22′ a couple of times, Leinster go up the field, 10-5.
And then, just after half-time, Henshaw gets an intercept pass and scores. Game over. And that’s how ruthless you need to be.

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“But Dan will be able to look at that game, which isn’t that long ago, and say, ‘Look, we need to make sure we’re really accurate coming into their half and, even if we’re not scoring every time, that we’re not giving away soft penalties or soft exit opportunities.’ You do that and you have a chance!

“The reality is that they’re probably not going to be able to get stuck into Leinster and dominate them physically like Connacht did because there’s going to be a backlash, Leinster are bringing back in better athletes. They’re probably not going to be able to dominate them at set-piece time the way Saracens did because they don’t have the cattle. They’ve got to try and find a way to win, but, to be honest, I don’t even think a win is necessary; I think to stop Leinster getting a bonus point and getting a bonus point themselves would be a huge result in terms of the conference given that Leinster have to go to Munster and have to go to Ulster later on.

“They have a chance to put things completely in their own destiny but, realistically, containing Leinster and getting a losing bonus point, considering they’re 10 points ahead, could be a worthwhile blow as well.”

robbie-henshaw-intercepts-to-score-a-try Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Leinster

Hugo Keenan
Jordan Larmour
Ross Byrne
Robbie Henshaw
Dave Kearney
Johnny Sexton (Captain)
Jamison Gibson-Park

Cian Healy
Seán Cronin
Andrew Porter
Scott Fardy
James Ryan
Rhys Ruddock
Josh van der Flier
Caelan Doris.

Replacements:

James Tracy
Ed Byrne
Michael Bent
Ross Molony
Jack Conan
Luke McGrath
Harry Byrne
Jimmy O’Brien

Ulster

Michael Lowry
Matt Faddes
James Hume
Stuart McCloskey
Ethan McIlroy
Billy Burns
John Cooney

Andrew Warwick
Rob Herring
Marty Moore
Alan O’Connor
Sam Carter (Captain)
Greg Jones
Jordi Murphy
Marcell Coetzee

Replacements:

John Andrew
Eric O’Sullivan
Tom O’Toole
Kieran Treadwell
Nick Timoney
David Shanahan
Ian Madigan
Ben Moxham

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey chat Pro14 interpros, the potential solution to the Lions’ problem, and Paul O’Connell’s appointment as Ireland’s forwards coach:


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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