URC preview: In-form Ulster seek prized Leinster scalp in Belfast

Emerging Ireland tour looks to have hit Ulster harder as Conan, Ryan and Sexton all return

Ulster v Leinster. Venue: Kingspan Stadium, Belfast. Kick-off: 7.35pm. On TV: Live on BBC NI, RTÉ and Premier Sports.

The game of the season so far for sure. These are early stages admittedly, but this third-round match is an early summit meeting, with the width of the table between these two and their Irish provincial rivals.

Although Leinster are, for once, not defending champions, they remain the most prized scalp of any visitors, arguably across the board in the URC, but certainly for Ulster.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland went so far as to say: “It’s one of the biggest games of the year, if not, the biggest game of the year in terms of interest, and the fact that it’s a home game for us. Leinster is a team that plays really good rugby, and they will test us both sides of the ball. We’ve been tested a fair bit in different ways over the last two rounds, but Leinster bring an all-round game that will test all aspects of our game. It will be a good barometer, and I look forward to seeing how we go.”


Although the 13,500 sold as of yesterday — with tickets still available on the Ulster website — is still shy of the 18,000 capacity, the atmosphere is bound to crackle. Thankfully too, the forecast is for tomorrow’s heavy rain to relent by early or late afternoon, because these two sides do like to play positive rugby, which in turn might make Andrew Brace’s big job relatively easier.

They’ve scored a combined 23 tries, albeit in Leinster’s case against the Italian duo, while Ulster put Connacht away before last week’s freewheeling 12-try bonanza away to the Scarlets.

Both appear as locked and loaded as they can be. But while each supplies seven players for the opening game of Emerging Ireland’s less than ideally timed tour to South Africa, arguably Ulster have been harder hit, given Robert Baloucoune would surely have started here (and would have been better served doing so?), while Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore and Tom Stewart would surely have been involved as well.

By contrast, Leinster’s more notable absentees are due to injury, with perhaps only Joe McCarthy denied to a probable Leinster “23″ for this game.

In any event, Ulster make just one change, with Tom O’Toole starting ahead of fellow try-scorer last week, Marty Moore. He is named on the bench, where John Andrew, Greg Jones and Ben Moxham return.

Leinster make two changes, with Ross Byrne restored and Jack Conan named for his seasonal bow, as is the case for James Ryan and Johnny Sexton, who are on the bench, where Vakh Abdaladze and Nick McCarthy are also restored.

Ulster were a joy to watch last week. Traditionally fast starters, they began strongly last season as well, but they have been quicker into their attacking strides this season. From the kick-off against the Scarlets, they kept offloading and recycling, always probing the home defence before being held up over the line after more than three-and-a-half minutes. From the goal line restart, they just resumed where they left off, and eventually Alan O’Connor scored the first of their seven tries in the sixth minute.

With Rob Herring, O’Toole and Kieran Treadwell all on top of their games after their contributions to Ireland’s summer tour, they look better equipped to match Leinster in the tight exchanges. But it is to their backs that they look to play, understandably so given that’s where their mostly homegrown strength lies.

True, John Cooney (masterful in his 30-point haul last week) and, in an unobtrusive way, Billy Burns, pulled the strings, but the go-to men are Stuart McCloskey and Mike Lowry. McCloskey’s matchup with Robbie Henshaw will be keenly watched, not least after Bundee Aki’s suspension has ruled him out until at least the second November Test against Fiji, and as the current Ulster cause célèbre, his every strong carry, pass and offload will be roared approvingly.

Alongside him, the fit again Luke Marshall has been rolling back the years. Ulster manoeuvred mismatches for Lowry as he ghosted on to the ball which the Scarlets couldn’t cope with, even if the fleet-footed fullback wasn’t on the score sheet himself.

Invariably beating the first tackle with his acceleration and footwork, Lowry made everyone else look like they were being towed and if he makes a similar impact here, he will cement his place as Ireland’s second choice fullback.

On the flip side Johnny Bell won’t have been happy with his porous side conceding five tries in his reincarnation as Ulster defence coach after the departure of Jared Payne. One ventures Bell will have been given plenty of time with his players this week, all the more so with a potent-looking Leinster coming to town.

The respective returns from penalties to the corner may prove decisive, even if Leinster will hardly achieve as much of a return from their catch-and-drives as they did last week against Benetton.

But whereas this Ulster side retains a number of those who featured in the win here last May, it looks to be a significantly stronger Leinster selection as they seek to avenge last season’s double. That looks like a statement of intent, and it could well be that Stuart Lancaster informing them of his departure to Racing at the start of the week will be further motivation.

In the heel of the hunt, and partly as a consequence of that Emerging Ireland tour, the Leinster bench does look stronger and that may be decisive towards what would be something of a statement win. Either way, it should be a good one.

Ulster: Michael Lowry, Aaron Sexton, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Andy Warwick, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (CAPT), 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: Jimmy O’Brien, Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose (CAPT), Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney, Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath, Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Michael Ala’alatoa, Ross Molony, Jason Jenkins, Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Vakhtang Abdaladze, James Ryan, Will Connors, Nick McCarthy, Johnny Sexton, Charlie Ngatai

Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU, 81st league game)

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times