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Claffey wary of Ulster challenge as Leinster eye back-to-back inter-pro titles

The women’s inter-pro semi-finals take place at Templeville Road on Saturday afternoon.

Claffey is gearing up for Leinster's clash against Ulster on Saturday.
Claffey is gearing up for Leinster's clash against Ulster on Saturday.
Image: Gary Carr/INPHO

THEY MAY BE overwhelming favourites to progress to the women’s inter-provincial championship decider, but Ireland international Michelle Claffey insists Leinster will need to be wary of the challenge posed by Ulster tomorrow afternoon. 

In a change to the previous round-robin format — where the team that topped the group after three rounds of fixtures were declared the winners — knockout rounds have been introduced for this year’s inter-pro series.

Following the earlier showdown between Munster and Connacht at Templeville Road, defending champions Leinster square off with their northern counterparts in the same venue [KO 3.45pm].

Ulster have struggled to make a lasting impact in recent campaigns and suffered a 24-5 defeat to the holders in their previous meeting on 24 August. However, Claffey feels the final outcome at City of Armagh RFC wasn’t a true reflection of the game.

“Against Ulster the last day, it was a very physical game. It was a very up front battle. They’re very good at the breakdown. They will turn us over if we’re complacent around that, but Ulster are obviously building as well,” the Offaly native acknowledged.

“We need to get our set-piece right. I think that’s one area we’ll need to work on for this coming weekend. I think it’s a very different pack versus our Leinster pack. It’s just the physicality. We need to bring it to them up front. Technically, we need to be better. We also need to be smarter around the pitch too.” 

While Claffey and a number of familiar faces are back in the fold, there has been considerable growth in the squad over the past 12 months. When head coach Ben Armstrong unveiled his selection for the tournament at the beginning of August, it featured a host of uncapped players. 

Included amongst the new crop are former Ireland stars Elaine Anthony and Larissa Muldoon, who have previous experience in the competition with Munster and Ulster respectively. Additionally, Grace Miller (younger sister of Grand Slam winner Alison) has lined up alongside Claffey in midfield — with captain Sene Naoupu deployed in an out-half role. 

“We’ve got a load of new girls this year. I think the transition from last year’s squad to this year’s squad, it’s probably about 50-50. The girls that have come in, they’ve played AIL. They’ve played international rugby. Either Sevens and 15s, in some cases,” explained Claffey, who is set to embark on her third Six Nations campaign next spring.

michelle-claffey Claffey in action against Connacht earlier in the season. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“They’ve added to the team and that’s what we need. Different ideas, different thoughts. I think it’s really good and we’ve got young players coming through as well, which is nice.”

In recent times, a succession of nail-biting encounters has significantly enhanced the already intense rivalry that exists between Leinster and Munster.

After they had been knocked off their perch in 2017, the blues subsequently regained the inter-pro crown in a nail-biting affair at Energia Park the following September.

Despite finishing on identical points, a 14-14 draw against Munster was enough to give Leinster the 2018 title on score difference. They recently met at Musgrave Park, when the visitors emerged with seven points to spare (20-13).

Should they come through their respective encounters at St Mary’s College RFC, the familiar foes will renew acquaintances in a grand showpiece next weekend. Though their clash down in Cork didn’t hold the same significance as it had in previous years, Claffey made sure to cherish a moment that can be all too rare in modern sport. 

Sometimes you don’t win that many matches in your playing career. You have to enjoy winning each game. You have to learn from the losses. I celebrated that win, as in I was happy. I’m not usually very happy after games are over and we’ve won, but I think it was a really good team effort. 

“I enjoyed that game a lot. I think it’s important as a team to celebrate wins, but we have to get a final or a third/fourth place play-off to play them again. We’ll see what happens there. Like I said, Ulster first. I don’t know what’s going to happen there,” Claffey added.

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