Leinster can continue their unbeaten start as pacesetters face off at RDS

Tough contest between Leinster and Ulster also makes for perfect loosener before next weekend’s opening Heineken Champions Cup matches

Leinster v Ulster, RDS, Saturday 7.35pm (Live on TG4, Premier Sport, URC TV)

With personal duels aplenty, this interprovincial clash offers up rugby’s version of a selection box for Ireland head coach Andy Farrell; and for the players, a chance to challenge the pecking order.

It may be a sidebar to the game but no one taking the pitch on Saturday night is unaware of the importance of playing well on these occasions. Hugo Keenan, James Lowe, and Jamison Gibson-Park wear the Leinster colours for the first time this season – for Lowe it represents his first competitive match of the campaign.

Garry Ringrose will captain the team in Johnny Sexton’s absence – Leinster will be hoping that the latter recovers from a calf injury in time for next weekend’s Champions Cup trip to Le Havre – and will be partnered in the centre by young Jamie Osborne, who switches from fullback.


Gainline collisions in the midfield with the Ulster axis of James Hume and Stuart McCloskey will undoubtedly have a big bearing on the outcome. Stewart Moore’s selection on the left wing is an interesting one. He’s a very talented footballer but fullback or centre would be a more orthodox choice positionally, especially with Jacob Stockdale on the bench.

There’s no need to be a soothsayer to highlight Tom Stewart’s talent, something that’s been obvious from his age-grade days with a succession of Ireland teams.

To be chosen in a game of this ilk underlines the faith that Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has in the hooker. For the player it is a chance to measure himself against two of the best, Ronan Kelleher and Dan Sheehan, in European rugby.

Iain Henderson is chosen at blindside flanker for the visitors while Leinster head coach Leo Cullen has opted for a similar tactical ploy in choosing Ryan Baird in the number six jersey. Ulster have opted for six forwards on the bench, with Nathan Doak and Stockdale covering the backline.

Leinster have held the current Ireland frontrow, Sheehan, Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong and number eight Caelan Doris in reserve initially, while outhalf Charlie Tector is set to make his second appearance and home debut in the absence of the injured Harry Byrne.

Ulster elected to leave several first-choice players - Rob Herring, Sam Carter and Duane Vermeulen - on the bench.

In the context of the contest, which pits the top two sides in the URC table against each nother, it is also a perfect loosener in terms of similar quality and intensity, before next weekend’s opening Heineken Champions Cup matches, with Leinster travelling to face Racing 92 in Le Havre and Ulster off to Manchester and a clash with the Sale Sharks.

Ulster will draw down on a victory here last season as a reminder of what can be achieved but Leinster are likely to use the same game as a motivational tool. The set piece and breakdown will be important, so too a nuanced kicking game but one suspects that both sides will want to free their hands and have a crack: Leinster should be better placed to sway the outcome in their favour.

Leinster: H Keenan; J O’Brien, G Ringrose (capt), J Osborne, J Lowe; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, R Kelleher, M Ala’alatoa; J Ryan, J Jenkins; R Baird, J van der Flier, J Conan. Replacements: D Sheehan, A Porter, T Furlong, R Molony, C Doris, N McCarthy, C Tector, L Turner.

Ulster: M Lowry; E McElroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, S Moore; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, T Stewart, M Moore; A O’Connor, K Treadwell; Ian Henderson (capt), Marcus Rea, N Timoney. Replacements: R Herring, C Reid, T O’Toole, S Carter, D Vermeulen, N Doak, J Stockdale, Matty Rea.

Referee: C Ridley (England).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer