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All eyes on Rob Kearney and Leinster's production line as they welcome Ulster to RDS

Ulster will have to deliver a major shock to upset the pace-setters in Europe and the Pro14 this evening.

THE SIGNS SAYING ‘mashing’ and ‘maturation’ and the industrial setting that lay below felt a perfectly apt location for Leinster’s pre-match press conference yesterday.

After all, the need to rotate front-liners through the festive inter-provincial schedule ahead will ensure that much-lauded production line is on full display again.

fergus-mcfadden-and-leo-cullen Leo Cullen and Fergus McFadden sit for pre-match media. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Against Ulster tonight at the RDS (kick-off 19.35, eir Sport) centre Tommy O’Brien will become the latest package delivered out of the academy as he makes his first senior appearance, while Harry Byrne picks up his fifth Leinster cap behind a pack that features Scott Penny, Josh Murphy and, freshly inducted into the Ireland setup, Will Connors and Max Deegan.

And although Ulster (not short of a few Leinster products of their own) have spared a fair few horses for the trip south to face their Pro14 Conference A rivals, the hosts won’t be caught short on the experience front either with Sean Cronin returning from his neck injury, Fergus McFadden, Scott Fardy, Robbie Henshaw and a Rob Kearney with a point to prove all in the starting XV.

All logic points to a sharp comedown for Ulster after their brilliant five-game winning streak has sent them top of their Champions Cup pool.

All eyes will be drawn to Kearney, who won his 95th Ireland cap at the World Cup, but now, for the first time, sits on the outside of the international setup looking in. After head coach Leo Cullen noted that Kearney need look no further than fellow 33-year-old Devin Toner for a route back to a green jersey, the head coach backed the veteran to tighten in his focus on plying his trade for Leinster.

“That is what Rob must focus on now, getting the head down and training well with us and he has to be fair,” said Cullen as Leinster’s press duty moved to Guinness’ Open Gate Brewery.

“He’s disappointed obviously but now he needs to get his head around what is next for him. What can he control?

“He can’t control selection for Ireland, but he can control how he plays and he’s lucky in a way that he has got a chance straight away to go out and showcase what he can do.

“I don’t see it as a door closing, I don’t think that is the attitude from the Irish coaches. I don’t get that sense.

“I get the feeling they are going to pick the best in the Six Nations, in terms of who is going well in form. Places are there to be won on their own merit, I gather.”

rob-kearney Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Others who were at the World Cup have missed out from the other provinces as well. It’s all about spreading the net a little wider I guess and it’s something we are always keen to do here at Leinster too as much as possible.

“When they’re housed under our nose, it’s a little easier for us. For the Irish coaches, I presume they just want to get some exposure for players they might not have seen much of. But when it comes to selection, they will know that there are plenty of guys who have experience in camp and if they have to be called upon they will know players can do a job.”

Of course, Kearney’s omission from the Ireland setup is down in no small part to his current standing in the Leinster pecking order. Cullen picked the veteran for the away win over Lyon in round two of Europe, but then preferred Jordan Larmour for both of the back-to-backs with Northampton. And boy did Larmour take his chance.

“Last year Rob was fine in terms of how he reacted and then obviously he got selected in finals. Selections are about any given week and it is no guarantee that it will stay the same the next week never mind six months later.

leo-cullen Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“We’re just judging on what we see in training and how that leads into a game day. And then we look at certain teams we play against and what skill-sets are suitable for different competitions and different teams.

“Jordan has kicked on in the last couple of weeks obviously but Rob has got his chance this week and he will hope to take it.”

The same can be said for so many of the Leinster players across this second-string squad, a group that has gathered to such brilliant effect throughout this season that they have delivered clear stand-outs for Andy Farrell call into the elite ranks.

Kearney’s fellow Clongowes Wood alumni Will Connors is among them.

“Will was unlucky not to get selected in those European games, and we’ve had that discussion with him,” said Cullen. “the numbers he posted in those two games, Glasgow and Connacht, were pretty exceptional.”

“He has a real point of difference in terms of his speed off the line, to put pressure on the opposition attack, particularly the opposition 10. He’s been really good there, so it wasn’t a massive surprise to see him selected.”

And it won’t be a massive surprise to see Connors  continuing to rack up impressive stats from the blindside and put enough pressure on Ulster’s Bill Johnston to help Leinster on their way to a Christmassy 12th straight win since the season began.

Leinster

15. Rob Kearney
14. Fergus McFadden
13. Tommy O’Brien
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Cian Kelleher
10. Harry Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Peter Dooley
2. Seán Cronin
3. Andrew Porter
4. Scott Fardy (Capt)
5. Josh Murphy
6. Will Connors
7. Scott Penny
8. Max Deegan

Replacements

16. Bryan Byrne
17. Cian Healy
18. Jack Aungier
19. Oisín Dowling
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Hugh O’Sullivan
22. Ciarán Frawley
23. Conor O’Brien

Ulster

15. Rob Lyttle
14. Craig Gilroy
13. Matt Faddes
12. Angus Curtis
11. Angus Kernohan
10. Bill Johnston
9. David Shanahan

1. Andrew Warwick
2. Adam McBurney
3. Tom O’Toole
4. David O’Connor
5. Alan O’Connor (Capt)
6. Matty Rea
7. Nick Timoney
8. Greg Jones

Replacements

16. John Andrew
17. Kyle McCall
18. Ross Kane
19. Jack Regan
20. Azur Allison
21. Jonny Stewart
22. Stewart Moore
23 Ethan McIlroy

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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