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URC guide: Belfast gears itself up for titanic battle between bitter Irish rivals

Leinster have packed their team with talent to face Ulster tonight.

Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

NO ONE UNDERSTANDS the danger of talking things up more than Ulster. For years they listened to their former chief executive sell the dream of becoming the No1 club in the world when they couldn’t even claim to be the No1 side in Ireland.

That status belonged to Leinster, the neighbours across the fence, who kept on having celebratory parties around May-time, Ulster realising it was pointless complaining about the noise. The only way to buy silence, they learned, was to get one over them.

That’s what they did last season, first in the RDS, later in Ravenhill. Tonight’s game (KO: 7.35pm – live on RTÉ, BBC NI, Premier Sports) is a different test, though and you only have to look at the team-sheets to understand why.

Way back in March, when Ulster won 18-10, Leinster’s starting XV contained just two players, Jimmy O’Brien and Joe McCarthy, who travelled to New Zealand this summer. By contrast, a dozen of the side in tonight’s Leinster squad saw game-time under Andy Farrell on that tour.

While Leinster’s established players – Johnny Sexton, James Ryan – are coming back, a new wave of Ulster talent is coming through, with players such as Aaron Sexton getting his chance tonight to see if he can make the sort of impact that Michael Lowry, James Hume, Stewart Moore, Ethan McIlroy and Nathan Doak have before him.

aaron-sexton Aaron Sexton is one to watch for Ulster. Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

“It’ll give us a really good idea of where we’re at,” said the Ulster assistant coach, Dan Soper.

And he’s right. Good and all as last year’s pair of victories were over Leinster, context is needed. The Ulster side that won by 10 points in the RDS was pretty much their first-choice outfit, 11 of their starting XV that night also selected for their biggest game of the year, the Champions Cup tie against Toulouse in Belfast.

Now look at that Leinster side who Ulster defeated in Dublin. Only four of their starters in that 20-10 defeat – Jimmy O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, Ross Molony and Tadhg Furlong – were picked to start their Champions Cup final, O’Brien and Molony the only players who lost to Ulster in March deemed good enough to face La Rochelle in May.

The team picked by Cullen tonight is way closer to a first choice XV even if some big names – Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong and Ronan Kelleher are missing.

Given the variables of fitness and form, and given the presence of Sexton and Ryan on the bench, it’s safe to say that two-thirds of Cullen’s preferred XV will see game-time tonight. So, if Ulster were to complete a hat-trick of wins, then this would be the best of them.

Yet they know it won’t be easy. “Leinster are the kings of you give them the ball and then you don’t see it for 15 or 20 minutes,” Soper said earlier this week. “They’re such a relentless team in defence so our attack is going to be challenged. When you get a chance you have to take it.”

Converting opportunities into points is something Ulster have done effectively this season, scoring 55 points against Scarlets, 36 against Connacht. Yet it is the five tries and 39 points they conceded last weekend that will concern them more.

Dan Sheehan scored four tries for Leinster against Treviso, the maul a source of joy for him. Ulster, uncharacteristically, got pushed around by Scarlets’ maul in Llanelli. They’d better fix that issue by 7.35pm this evening.

Otherwise they’ll be thumped, as Leinster – courtesy of Jason Jenkins’ arrival – appear that bit meaner this time around. “He’s a bit of meat that we probably needed,” said Sheehan this week.

It was just about the only thing they lacked. Every other box – their kicking game; their attack; their work at the breakdown, even their scrum – they ticked.  

“We need to tidy up our discipline,” observed Ulster’s John Cooney after the Scarlets win.

“We gave away some silly penalties, and some kicks we probably could have regained but we didn’t.

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“We need to refine some of the smaller edges. We need to be more clinical, and we need to be more ruthless because Leinster is probably the biggest game of the season where you learn these sorts of things.”

Tonight we’ll learn more about how far along the road Ulster are in their journey. The answer is a lot closer to Leinster than many people realise.

Ulster Rugby

Michael Lowry, Aaron Sexton, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andy Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (Captain), Kieran Treadwell, Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Marty Moore, Sam Carter, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, Ben Moxham.

 

Leinster Rugby (caps in brackets):
15. Jimmy O’Brien (54)
14. Jordan Larmour (75)
13. Garry Ringrose (103) CAPTAIN
12. Robbie Henshaw (69)
11. Dave Kearney (175)
10. Ross Byrne (130)
9. Luke McGrath (177)
1. Andrew Porter (92)
2. Dan Sheehan (30)
3. Michael Ala’alatoa (27)
4. Ross Molony (141)
5. Jason Jenkins (2)
6. Ryan Baird (39)
7. Josh van der Flier (115)
8. Jack Conan (117)
Replacements
16. Rónan Kelleher (38)
17. Ed Byrne (87)
18. Vakhtang Abdaladze (18)
19. James Ryan (58)
20. Will Connors (27)
21. Nick McCarthy (47)
22. Johnny Sexton (184)
23. Charlie Ngatai (2)

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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