Friday 3 February 2023 Dublin: 10°C
INPHO/Presseye/Darren Kidd Ulster's Luke Marshall is wrapped up by the Leinster defence.
# Ask The Audience
Fans of Leinster and Ulster give us their take on new season
We caught up with supporters from last year’s Pro12 finalists and asked them to share their rugby hopes and fears.

WE CAUGHT UP with four passionate, provincial rugby supporters and asked how they felt their team’s would fare this season.

As Leinster and Ulster are first out of the RaboDirect Pro12 traps tonight, we will start off with them.

Leinster (Dave Cahill – Official Leinster Supporters Club)

Well here we are again.   After the somewhat otherworldly excitement of the Summer Lions tour, it’s back down to earth with the start of a new Pro12 season. There is no feeling like the anticipation you have at the start of a new season. At this point everything is possible, the Heineken Cup, the Pro12, they’re just there, waiting for you to reach out and grab them. Reality will intrude as the season wears on, but for now…

Leinster face into the new season with, for the first time in a couple of years, a number of questions over the outfit.  This is the beginning of a new era for Leinster supporters, Matt O’Connor has replaced Joe Schmidt as Leinster coach, Jonny Sexton has taken the horse to France, and Isa Nacewa has retired. Take three personalities like that out of any team and it will be a struggle to replace them. Leinster’s season will, in many ways, be defined by how well they do so.

The signs look good though. Matt O’Connor had a great record as coach of English powerhouse Leicester Tigers.  Under O’Connor, the Tigers were regularly at or near the top of the charts for most tries scored and least tries conceded.  He evolved Leicester’s traditional power based game into something more nuanced, and that will be his remit with Leinster – evolution not revolution.

He will hope to take the foundation and structure that Schmidt left and take it to the next level.  In that he will be aided by the presence of most of leadership group from the last few seasons, Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and of course Brian O’Driscoll remain in-situ.

Ian Madigan will start the season as the heir presumptive to Sexton’s number 10 shirt, but he will face a battle from new signing Jimmy Gopparth. Signed from Newcastle Falcons, the outhalf has looked good on his two outings to date and Kiwis aren’t renowned for their willingness to settle for second place, so Madigan will have to be at his best to keep his place.

Nacewa can’t be replaced, but the man with the unfortunate task of trying to do so is Springbok fullback, Zane Kirchner. A player who has divided opinion in both South Africa and, since his signing, Leinster, he faces a struggle both on and off the pitch to be accepted, which, when one looks at his record seems strange. He’s the current Springbok full-back and was the Bulls fullback, pocketing two Super Rugby titles in the process.

imageZane Kirchner is set to make his Leinster debut in late September. INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

The squad has been strengthened elsewhere. Mike McCarthy comes east along the road, joining from Connacht, and the Irish International lock will hope that he will fortify a position that has, on occasion, been a questionable one for Leinster.

It wouldn’t be a new Leinster season without supporters wildly hyping some poor unfortunate youth, and I’m going to join in. Dan Leavy is a back row forward whose hardness in the tackle is matched only by the softness of his hands, watch out for this guy, he will be a Lion in four years time.

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How will Leinster do this season? It’s hard to tell because there are so many unknowns. I’d back them to get into the playoffs of the Pro12 and get out of the group in the Heineken Cup.  After that, in knock out rugby?  You’d want to be a very confident punter to back against us!

Ulster (John McMurty – The Front Row Union)

We’ll be more than happy to go one step further than last year. After reaching two finals in two seasons, the expectations of the Ulster fans are huge. We are expecting silverware.

A few of the non-Irish-qualified players are seeing out their contracts this year but there are a lot of promising young guys coming through. David McIlwaine could make a breakthrough this season. If our main players have an injury free season and we can get Stephen Ferris back, we’ll be in good shape.

imageStephen Ferris is only contracted with Ulster up until the end of the year. INPHO/Presseye/William Cherry

We really missed Ferris last year and had no real enforcer up front. Nick Williams had a great season but he doesn’t strike that fear into you like Ferris does.

The key player for Ulster this season will be Paddy Jackson. He was catapulted into Ulster’s Heineken Cup team [2012] and the Irish team [2013] and didn’t have to battle too hard to get there. He has been protected by Ruan Pienaar a lot in the past so it will be important to see if he can come out of his shell this season.

I watched Jackson and Luke Marshall, who was first receiver, tear apart a Leinster A side a few years back. If they can combine like that again this season, and we can get an enforcer up front, I fancy our chances in the league and, while we’re at it, the Heineken Cup.

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