Champions Cup: Leinster’s superior quality should get them over the line against Ulster

Uncanny similarities with the epic between the same sides four years ago

Champions Cup, Round of 16: Leinster v Ulster

Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5.30pm (Live on RTÉ2, BT Sport 4 and RTÉ Radio)

After the Lord Mayor’s Show? Hardly. Rather, this all-Irish knock-out tie will ensure the Aviva Stadium will, remarkably, reverberate to a full house for the third time in 15 days. The show goes on.

Rescaling the Grand Slam heights looks a trickier task for Leinster given 14 of the 16 players who featured in that win over England only a fortnight ago rock up here. An ill Caelan Doris has been ruled out in addition to Johnny Sexton, while two other contributors to the Irish Slam, Garry Ringrose and Ronan Kelleher, are also still sidelined.


Leo Cullen all but ruled Sexton out for the remainder of the season given his groin injury would normally mean a 12-week absence, and at most Leinster have up to nine games remaining.

So one more year?

“We did laugh about it already. We have already joked about it, well not joked about it, but had a conversation about it. So maybe, yeah,” said the Leinster coach laughing again. “Never say never.”

But it’s highly doubtful that Sexton will now have a change of heart.

For their part a trio of Ulstermen who saw out the coronation two weeks ago as replacements start, namely Rob Herring (whose try sealed the deal), Tom O’Toole and Kieran Treadwell. In addition, Stuart McCloskey, who started Ireland’s first three games, is among a bunch of highly motivated Ulster players who’ve been in and out of Irish teams and squad sessions but were on the outside looking in, namely Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns and Nick Timoney.

It could be a tasty one, and what’s seldom is wonderful, for in the 28 years of the Champions Cup this is only the eighth all-Irish provincial derby and the fifth of them at this venue, beginning with the 2006 semi-final when Munster beat Leinster.

Leinster have won the subsequent five they have been involved in, retaining the trophy by beating Ulster 42-14 in the 2012 final at Twickenham when at the peak of that team’s powers. Last season they met Connacht at the same stage in a two-legged tie, winning 26-21 in Galway before all semblance of jeopardy pretty much evaporated after Leinster conjured a try out of nothing by Jamison Gibson-Park in the 11th minute.

“There was something very strange about that two-legged one last year, wasn’t there?” Leo Cullen admitted on Friday. “We finished up in Galway but it was just half time. At the end you were thinking, ‘well, what are we supposed to do now? See you next week for the second half.’ It was definitely unusual, so probably knockout is better.”

Indeed, the epic quarter-final clash between these two four years ago to the week was a contender for game of the season. Ulster smashed into tackles and targeted Leinster’s breakdown. Rory Best’s early turnover and chargedown for Treadwell to score set the tone. Stockdale brilliantly conjured a near certain try with Ulster leading 13-11 early in the second half before failing to ground the ball. Even then Ulster never let up, and Leinster squeezed through thanks to a 71st-minute penalty by a hobbling Ross Byrne.

The similarities for another Saturday teatime kick-off are uncanny. Leinster were bulk suppliers to Ireland’s Six Nations, were without Sexton and 13-point favourites, whereas today they are 14-point favourites against an equally motivated Ulster.

But there were some key differences too. Ireland’s disappointing Six Nations had culminated in a heavy beating by Wales a fortnight previously. With the emergence of Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter’s conversion to loosehead, and the likes of Josh van der Flier, Gibson-Park, James Lowe since becoming frontline internationals, this also looks a stronger Leinster team.

Reigning “European” champions then, they’re still wounded from losing last season’s final and the undoubted feeling they have come up short in not adding to the four stars since.

“There is always that sense particularly when you get to a final,” Cullen admitted. “That’s what drives us day in and day out, it is so bloody hard to win. Jeepers, if you think back to Marseilles, the game is there in our grasp and there are things in our control that we could have done better. You live with some of that afterwards, and for younger players you kinda try to get across to them how hard it is to win.

“The memory of how last season ended is still very fresh for us. We want to get back to that stage. But you can’t think too far ahead. It’s just about Ulster. That’s been the focus for 10 weeks now.”

Furthermore, Leinster again lead all the attacking metrics in this season’s competition, be it tries scored (28), most passes (710), defenders beaten (98), line breaks (43), most carries (563) and most metres (1,979).

By contrast, Ulster were not helped by their home game against La Rochelle being moved to here, but even so have the lowest tallies of all 16 qualifiers for tries scored (seven), offloads (12), defenders beaten (37), line breaks (nine) and metres made (922).

Leinster also imposed their scrum in completing a URC double this season, although Ulster have a potent lineout maul and a backline which can conjure magic too.

Maybe none of that will count for anything. Cullen said the pitch was dewy and the grass cut shorter for last Monday’s football game (when the atmosphere was cracking), while the forecast is changeable. That could all add to the entertainment value, and not only is it a cup tie but derbies are simply different gravy.

But ultimately it would be a surprise if Leinster’s quality does not earn a home quarter-final against Leicester, who beat Edinburgh 16-6 last night, quite possibly next Friday evening.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Jimmy O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, James Ryan (capt), Ryan Baird, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan. Replacements: John McKee, Cian Healy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Jason Jenkins, Scott Penny, Luke McGrath, Harry Byrne, Ciarán Frawley.

Ulster: Michael Lowry, Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, Nathan Doak; Rory Sutherland, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor (Captain), Kieran Treadwell, Dave McCann, Nick Timoney, Duane Vermeulen. Replacements: Tom Stewart, Eric O’Sullivan, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Harry Sheridan, Marcus Rea, John Cooney, Stewart Moore, Ben Moxham.

Referee: Luke Pearce (RFU).

Results so far: Leinster - W 42-10 v Racing (h); W 57-0 v Gloucester (h); W 49-14 v Gloucester (a); W 36-10 v Racing (h). Ulster - L 0-39 v Sale (a); L 29-36 v La Rochelle (h); L 3-7 v La Rochelle (a); W 22-11 v Sale (h).

Betting (Paddy Power): 1/10 Leinster, 25/1 Draw, 13/2 Ulster. Handicap odds (Ulster + 14pts) 10/11 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Ulster.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times