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Ulster well placed to keep the heat on Leinster in hunt for top spot

Tonight’s game at Glasgow is the province’s first outing in six weeks.

Jordi Murphy captains Ulster for the first time tonight.
Jordi Murphy captains Ulster for the first time tonight.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

WHEN YOU’RE CHASING Leinster you can’t really afford any missteps. Ulster have been doing a pretty decent job of it this season, currently trailing Leo Cullen’s men by four points in Conference A as they stare into the final block of regular season fixtures.

Working under the assumption there are no further changes to the scheduling – although that wouldn’t be the safest of bets – Ulster have just five games left to try catch Cullen and Co and secure a place in the Pro14 final on 27 March.

To achieve that Dan McFarland’s side will have to try gather as many points as possible while also hoping Leinster, who are due in Belfast on 6 March, slip-up somewhere along the way. It’s more mission improbable than mission impossible.

They head into this run of five successive weekends of Pro14 fixtures looking to rediscover their impressive pre-Christmas form.

Tonight’s game at Glasgow Warriors [7.35, eir Sport] represents a first outing in six weeks, bar a behind-closed-doors training game against Andy Farrell’s Ireland.

Last time out Leinster ended Ulster’s 10-game winning streak in the competition. This fixture will have felt a long time coming, but looks as good a game as any to get back on the horse.

It’s been a difficult season for Glasgow, who sit fourth in Conference A with just three wins from 10.

They were one-point winners over Edinburgh in their most recent outing but consistency has been a major issue. It’s been almost a year since the Warriors last put back-to-back wins together.

Head Coach Danny Wilson has named 12 Scotland internationals in his starting team, along with incoming Ulster signing Leone Nakarawa, but the province are not exactly short on talent either, even taking account a rather lengthy injury list.

Wilson doesn’t need to be reminded just how good Ulster can be on their day, with Glasgow getting thumped 40-15 in Belfast earlier in the season. Only Leinster have scored more tries in the Pro14 this season. Leinster and Munster are the only teams to have conceded less.

“Ulster gave us a real tough day over at the Kingspan earlier in the season,” Wilson said. “They’re a very powerful side.”

Nakarawa will add to that power next season and news of his signing was a major boost for Ulster last month, coming shortly after head coach McFarland had agreed a new deal. A win in Glasgow to keep the heat on Leinster would really keep the feel-good factor going.

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Nine of the Ulster team that starts tonight also started when these sides last met back in November.

John Cooney, fresh from his late call-up as injury cover to the Ireland camp, is back at scrum-half. Stuart McCloskey and Tom O’Toole also start having being released from the Ireland squad to get some minutes under their belt.

Jordi Murphy takes captaincy duties for the first time and Ian Madigan makes his sixth start of the season at out-half. Those two in particular won’t need any extra motivation over the next few weeks. 

“We have ambitions to finish at the top of our conference, so there’s no room for manoeuvre,” said McFarland.

“The beauty of the sport is there’s always something on the line to play for.” 

Glasgow Warriors: Huw Jones; Ratu Tagive, Robbie Fergusson, Sam Johnson, Rufus McLean; Adam Hastings, Jamie Dobie; Oli Kebble, Johnny Matthews, Enrique Pieretto; Richie Gray, Leone Nakarawa; Rob Harley, Thomas Gordon, Ryan Wilson (captain).

Replacements: Grant Stewart, Aki Seiuli, D’arcy Rae, James Scott, TJ Ioane, Sean Kennedy, Ross Thompson, Ollie Smith.

Ulster: Michael Lowry; Craig Gilroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Ian Madigan, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell; Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy (captain), Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Adam McBurney, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Cormac Izuchukwu, Greg Jones, Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore, Matt Faddes

Bernard Jackman, Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey take the fine-tooth comb to Ireland’s defeat to France and get to the bottom of their issues on both sides of the ball:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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