Dan Sheridan/INPHO Action from the last Ulster/Leinster game.
Reaching for the prize
Ulster need this win - for their self-respect as much as anything else
Leinster have lorded it over Ulster in this fixture for years – but Dan McFarland’s side have every reason to be confident tonight.

ULSTER FANS, LOOK away now. The following sentences contain material some viewers may find distressing.

It starts with a semi-final in 2011 and ends with a final last September. It also ends the same way each time: Leinster winning and an Ulster player, or coach, saying how much they have learned from the experience. By now, we’ve also learned one thing – namely that when it comes to the crunch, and it’s Ulster versus Leinster, there is only one team to back.

Look at the evidence. In 2011, Ulster – enjoying their best season in five years – had reached a Pro12 semi-final and were on a crest of a wave. Leinster beat them 18-3.

A year later, it was Europe, where every Ulster player interviewed was contractually obliged to mention “the spirit of ’99” in the build-up to that year’s Heineken Cup final. Leinster won again, 42-10.

rory-best-dejected Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO Rory Best is dejected after the 2012 final. Presseye / William Cherry/INPHO / William Cherry/INPHO

Come 2013, there was a cruel tweak to the rules. The team that topped the league got home advantage in the Pro12 final. Didn’t they? Not that time. Ravenhill was being rebuilt, the final was switched to the RDS and Leinster defeated Ulster once again, 24-18. 2014, the Pro12 semi? Same story, Leinster 13-9 Ulster.

When these sides met in subsequent knockout games – the Pro12 semi-final in 2016; the 2019 Champions Cup quarter-final and last year’s Pro14 decider – Leinster won. In fact, you have to go back to the inaugural year of the long-forgotten Celtic Cup for Ulster’s solitary knockout victory over their old rivals in the professional era. Now, it’s worth noting that the inaugural year of the Celtic Cup doubled up as its penultimate year.

More to the point, Ulster’s win was actually a 23-23 draw; the northern province progressing to the semi-finals by virtue of the fact they scored three tries to Leinster’s two.

History lesson over, who are we putting our money on this evening (7.35pm kick off, eir Sport)?

Why, Ulster, of course.

How could we not? All they have to do is win. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? After all, Connacht got one over Leinster in the opening weekend of 2021.

It’s different now, though. This is a semi-final in all but name, as big a game as those aforementioned do-or-die fixtures in 2011, 2014 and 2016. The history books will record it as a regular season game but it’s more than that.

a-disappointed-stuart-mccloskey-after-the-match Billy Stickland / INPHO Stuart McCloskey after last year's final. Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

For Ulster, it’s about self-respect. If it’s bad enough going 15 years without a trophy, it’s a hell of a lot worse knowing the neighbours over the fence are living it up at a party you could have been hosting.

Since 2006, when Ulster last won this competition, Leinster have lifted the title six times, as well as collecting a quartet of European Cups.

Take nothing away from them. They have devised a system that works, not just for them but also Irish Rugby. The team they have selected for this evening’s game contains a World Cup finalist and 10 Irish internationals. But never mind the XV we’ll see tonight, look instead at this team of absentees: Keenan; Larmour, Ringrose, Henshaw, Lowe; Sexton, Gibson-Park; Healy, Kelleher, Furlong; Baird, Ryan; Leavy, Connors, Doris.

That’s why Ulster have to win this, not just to keep their hopes alive of reaching another Pro14 decider but because a defeat to a severely weakened Leinster would be a stain on their reputation.

Yes, Ulster also have key players missing for tonight’s game – but nowhere near as many. Iain Henderson may be irreplaceable but a combination of John Andrew and Adam McBurney provides adequate compensation for Rob Herring.

john-andrew-with-keiran-williams Matt Mackey / INPHO John Andrew is in a rich vein of form. Matt Mackey / INPHO / INPHO

No Billy Burns means Ian Madigan gets his shot. Let’s be blunt: the latter is a better player.

While it wasn’t part of any plan, Ulster have inadvertently come up with the perfect strategy for thriving in this year’s competition, getting a group of players who are good enough to win 12 out of 13 matches, but not good enough to overly trouble the Ireland selectors.

While there’s plenty to like about this Leinster side, not least their ability to churn out bonus-point victories when the Sextons, Lowes, Ringroses and Ryans are away, there are also chinks in their armour.

We saw it in the third quarter of last week’s victory over Glasgow. Ahead on the scoreboard, while also profiting from a numerical advantage, Leinster panicked a little, just as they did against Connacht in January.

Look at their bench. Four of their eight replacements have 12 caps or fewer. Full-back, Max O’Reilly, has just four caps.

max-oreilly James Crombie / INPHO Max O'Reilly has won four Leinster caps. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

Now look at Ulster. They’re evolved into a side who are both hard to beat but easy on the eye, especially when the ball lands in Michael Lowry’s hands. His counterattacking instincts are shared across the board – Nick Timoney providing evidence of that in last week against Ospreys.

There’s more. Robert Baloucoune’s thirst for work is as noticeable now as his speed was when he made his breakthrough a couple of years back; Jacob Stockdale is getting back in the groove; John Cooney was never out of it.

Think of Stuart McCloskey’s physical presence and images of Connacht’s Tom Daly bullying fresh-faced Leinster defenders in January come to mind.

You wouldn’t want to be the one telling Devin Toner or Scott Fardy about the idea that you fancy Ulster to edge things physically tonight, especially as the tight five is an area Leinster will probably shade. But this isn’t five versus five; it’s 23 versus 23 and there are more streetwise operators on the Ulster bench than there are on Leinster’s.

Beyond that factor, there’s another and it reminds you of an old boxing saying, to put your money on the kid who is fighting for his breakfast In other words, back the hungrier of the two participants.

That’s Ulster. They know if they lose tonight that they’re gone; that there’s no safety net. They also know they could conceivably win tonight, end the regular season with more points than Munster (and more wins than any other team in the championship) and still not make the final.

They need favours, if not from Zebre, then from Ospreys, Leinster’s last two opponents. More than favours, though, they need to get one over Leinster, something they failed to do in January, when they last met them.

But that Leinster team resembles this one solely in terms of the fact they both wear blue. In January, when Leinster schooled Ulster in the second half, Johnny Sexton was there. So was James Ryan, Cian Healy, Hugo Keenan, Jordan Larmour, Robbie Henshaw, Jamison Gibson-Park, Andrew Porter, Caelan Doris. They brought Jack Conan and Harry Byrne off the bench.

Those luxuries aren’t available tonight. Ulster, though, have a stronger team now than they had then. If they can’t beat them now, they never will.

Ulster: Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Ian Madigan, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, John Andrew, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy (Capt.), Marcell Coetzee.

Replacements: Adam McBurney, Andrew Warwick, Marty Moore, Cormac Izuchukwu, Sean Reidy, Alby Mathewson, Stewart Moore, Rob Lyttle.

Leinster: Max O’Reilly, Cian Kelleher, Jimmy O’Brien, Rory O’Loughlin, Dave Kearney, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (CAPT), Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Michael Bent, Devin Toner, Scott Fardy, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Scott Penny.

Replacements: Seán Cronin, Peter Dooley, Thomas Clarkson, Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Rowan Osborne, Jamie Osborne, Jack Dunne.

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)


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