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Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Billy Stickland/INPHO
# Derby
Ulster have already won Leinster's respect - but the hard work is just about to start
The top two sides in the URC meet at the RDS tonight with Leinster packing their team with players who defeated the All Blacks this summer.

BEFORE WE DELVE into the match-ups between those who are here, stop for a minute to consider who is missing.

The answer is very few. Robbie Henshaw is injured, so too Johnny Sexton. Otherwise this is pretty much the deck Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster would choose to play with if it was a Champions Cup biggie.

For sure, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan and Tadhg Furlong would start rather than emerge from the bench, but we are still going to see them on the field at the RDS tonight (kick off 7.35pm, live TG4, Premier). They’re needed for this job because Cullen knows it’s one that’ll require a lot of heavy lifting.

That’s what Ulster have won with this Leinster selection, respect. When they came and took the points at the RDS a year ago, it was against a considerably weaker Leinster team.

So look again at those Leinster names who’ll feature tonight: Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy, Porter, Sheehan, Furlong, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Ryan Baird, Jack Conan, Caelan Doris – they all toured New Zealand with Ireland this summer.

More than that, 12 of them featured in the decisive second and third Test wins. So, it isn’t Leinster that Ulster are facing tonight, it’s a team who know what it’s like to beat the All Blacks away from home.

If that isn’t enough to get you interested, then consider these things. Keenan and Lowe make their first Leinster appearances of the season, Lowe his first game for anyone since the summer tour.

Ulster have picked Iain Henderson at blindside, countering Leinster’s decision to do a similar thing with Ryan Baird. Ulster’s choice of Tom Stewart at hooker rather than Rob Herring is vindication of the kid. He’s class, has been spoken about with the same excitement as Sheehan and Ronan Kelleher. Well, tonight we’ll see if he deserves that chat.

tom-stewart-is-presented-with-the-bkt-united-rugby-championship-player-of-the-match-award Ryan Byrne / INPHO Stewart's emergence has energised Ulster. Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

The selection of six forwards on the Ulster bench is a smart one, especially when you consider the oomph that Porter, Sheehan, Furlong, Doris and Ross Molony will give Leinster in the second half. Ordinarily you’d worry for Ulster in those circumstances.

But look at what they have in reserve. Rob Herring scored the decisive try for Ireland in the final Test in New Zealand this summer; Duane Vermeulen was man of the match in the 2019 World Cup final; Sam Carter’s CV includes three Tests against the All Blacks, two against South Africa, two against England and nine other caps for the Wallabies.

So, they arrive in Dublin with experience in the bank. They also have a few fellahs with points to prove, Marty Moore when he goes up against Healy and then Porter in the scrum; Nathan Doak when he replaces John Cooney at scrum-half, Jacob Stockdale – remember him? – when he comes off the bench.

The logic of choosing Stewart Moore, a centre/full-back, on the wing instead of Stockdale will be questioned loudly if it goes wrong but so far this season, the majority of Dan McFarland’s big calls have come off.

Significantly, he has backed players who others have written off, Moore and Alan O’Connor especially, but also Billy Burns.

You may recall Burns – the player who messed up his kick to touch for Ireland against Wales a couple of years ago in the Six Nations.

billy-burns-celebrates James Crombie / INPHO Burns has been brilliant for Ulster this year. James Crombie / INPHO / INPHO

He is kind of a forgotten man now in international terms but with Ulster he has got their backline moving.

Perhaps we should note how Ulster were on the verge of knocking Toulouse out of Europe last year – six points ahead on aggregate – when Burns went off injured in the 57th minute of their second leg. They lost by one.

A week later Munster came to Belfast, Burns still injured. Ulster lost. Had they won they’d have had home advantage for the URC semi-final and final. They haven’t won a trophy since 2006. Had Burns played that night against Munster, we could very well be writing a different sentence this morning.

Time after time for Ulster, Burns has delivered. Prior to the November series, he excelled against Munster, one moment in particular standing out, when he recovered a tricky situation to step half a yard to his right, freeing himself from unwanted attention for a crucial moment, enough to look up and spot the space in the Munster backfield.

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That was where he sent the ball, spiralling high into the Limerick sky, dropping just outside the Munster 22, bouncing just inside it.

By getting that 50:22, by finding touch, he showed he had rediscovered his touch. Ulster fans have known this for some time. Leinster supporters are about to find out for themselves tonight.

Leinster:  Hugo Keenan, Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose (CAPT), Jamie Osborne, James Lowe, Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park, Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa, James Ryan, Jason Jenkins, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan

Replacements:  Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Caelan Doris, Nick McCarthy, Charlie Tector, Liam Turner

Ulster:  Michael Lowry, Ethan McIlroy, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Stewart Moore, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Andy Warwick, Tom Stewart, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Kieran Treadwell, Iain Henderson (CAPT), Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Reid, Tom O’Toole, Sam Carter, Duane Vermeulen, Nathan Doak, Jacob Stockdale, Matty Rea.

Referee: Christophe Ridley (RFU)

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