Friday’s meeting between the early pacesetters in the embryonic URC table at the Kingspan Stadium (kick-off 7.35pm) is the most mouth-watering tie of the opening three rounds for sure and it is given added piquancy in light of Ulster completing a rare double over Leinster last season.
Following his four-try salvo in last week’s win over Benetton, Dan Sheehan admitted that it didn’t long for this to be brought up within the Leinster squad.
“Yeah, we touched on it quickly in the changing room. It’s always a massive game for us. Ulster have been improving season on season the last few years, and they’ve become a really good team, as shown last year where they did us twice, so motivation is at top-level. I think everyone will be gunning to get going after having one game under the belt and will be ready for next Friday.”
Sheehan didn’t feature in either of last season’s two meetings, when Ulster won 20-10 in the RDS in November and 18-13 in Belfast last March, although he did score a try off the bench in Leinster’s 38-19 win in the Kingspan Stadium in March 2021.
“Yeah, I played in the season before, when we won a good game, but it’s always one in that first pre-season meeting; it’s a game we need to target. Ravenhill away in the last few years have been proper battles and it’s always a deciding game with where we stand in the table. So, I think this game is probably our biggest game in the next block that we really need to be firing for.”
On nights like Friday, when the Kingspan will be rocking, it even rivals Thomond Park for the traditional Munster-Leinster derby and playing in such a partisan atmosphere is something Sheehan will relish.
“It’s great to test yourself in pressure environments. The job’s no fun when there’s no pressure on you. At the end of the season, it’s all about these pressure environments when you have to perform when asked, and next Friday we’ll be asked to perform and it will be interesting to see if we can do it.”
Leinster, of course, are also at the formative stages of their first season since in six without a trophy, obliging such a high-achieving organisation to re-set their goals for this campaign. They are the hunters, rather than the hunted, once again.
“We have a lot of meetings at the start of the season and during pre-season blocks about what we’re about this year, what we want to be, changes from last year, coming off the back of a disappointing season last year where we probably went well all the way up to the end, but the end is where it matters.
“So, we set a goal to make sure we’re taking every single point available and then it will just be about continuing that form throughout the season, especially toward the end of the season where one slip will cost you a title. I think everyone is in good form and ready to crack into the next season.”
Sheehan, who had scored hat-tricks before but never four tries in one game at any level, attributed three of those entirely to his pack, joking that he stole them off Josh van der Flier.
After nine players left or retired last season, the province again relied heavily on their academy production line, from where they promoted seven players, and signed just two, Charlie Ngatai from Lyon and Jason Jenkins from Munster.
The latter has given palpable oomph to their work in contact, not least in their breakdown - where he has the impact of a truck - and lineout mauls.
“Yeah, just his sheer power, and he’s a very smart player,” said Sheehan, who appears to have developed an immediate rapport with the 6′ 8″, 125kg, once-capped Springbok.
“You see it in the tight carries, he’s making gain-line every time and then during the week he’s bringing in a lot of experience, different ideas into the mauls and in scrummaging.
“He’s a bit of meat that we probably needed a little and it’s great to see how he’s gone, and hopefully he’ll do a job for the next few weeks.”