Home advantage could tilt things Ulster’s way as Leinster rotate ahead of Toulouse final

James Ryan and Hugo Keenan return from injury but no starters from the side which beat Northampton will be first choice in Belfast

URC: Ulster v Leinster Kingspan Stadium, Belfast, 7.35pm kick-off live on TG4 and Premier Sports

Spring and optimism are in the air again around the Kingspan Stadium and with Leinster remaining the prized scalp domestically, a capacity 18,000-plus crowd will give Ulster’s final home game of the season a fitting sense of occasion.

The stakes are high too, particularly for Ulster. A brace of wins against Leinster and away to Munster next week might yet earn a top four finish and a home quarter-final but realistically that ship looks to have sailed.

More pressing is simply the need for a victory here and a giant strike toward both a place in the play-offs and next season’s Champions Cup, one or both of which they could yet miss out on were they to lose both of their remaining games.

At face value, there could be worse times to bump into Leinster than the week before Leo Cullen’s side face Toulouse in the Champions Cup final in London.


For their part, the odds are against Leinster overtaking Glasgow atop the table anyway and while there remains the risk of them slipping outside the top two, exchanging home advantage in the URC semi-finals and/or final in order to maximise their chances of earning a coveted fifth European star is an understandable strategy.

Hene, sensibly with next week’s final in mind, despite the debate that Cullen should have risked all his front-liners in this game, all bar one of Leinster’s starting line-up in the semi-final against Northampton at Croke Park a fortnight ago have been rested.

Even so, two possible starters for next week are included for some welcome game time in the returning duo of James Ryan and Hugo Keenan for their first outings since January and early April respectively. This starting XV also includes seven of the bench used in Croke Park, as well as two more from the matchday 23 among the replacements, namely Ross Molony and Luke McGrath.

While not risking injury to the frontline frontrowers, backrowers, and Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, James Lowe et al, it’s still not exactly a team of greenhorns and it is, one ventures, well capable of returning with the spoils.

In the heel of the hunt, there looks to be just as much oomph and quality on the visiting bench as there is among the home replacements. Furthermore, it’s doubtful any of this matchday squad will be distracted by events next week.

Nevertheless, after riding their luck a little in their home wins over Cardiff, especially, and Benetton, there were signs in the second half against the Scarlets last week of Ulster rediscovering some of their old attacking fluency, albeit as the home side accumulated yellow cards.

Buoyed by confirmation of Richie Murphy’s full-time appointment, after making a very positive impression on the players on a caretaker basis, Ulster are looking more cohesive and settled (witness one change, namely the return of Tom O’Toole) and come into this match on the back of three successive wins.

The set pieces, collisions and breakdown battle will go a long way toward determining how this game pans out, but it will be interesting to see if these sides continue where they left off a week ago.

Having trailed 6-3 at the break, Ulster were encouraged to play with more width and outscored the Scarlets 28-14 in an altogether more enterprising second half. It helped, admittedly, that their scrum had a significant edge against seven-man opponents, not least when Nick Timoney maintained his fine form with his 12th try in all competition this season.

Two of their other try scorers, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale, also maintained their good end-of-season form, while there are few more accurate goalkickers than John Cooney and Nathan Doak, and for all of them this derby could be something of a last Irish trial this season.

Ulster are also seeking a fourth successive interprovincial derby win for the first time since 2008, and a rare double over Leinster, having won by 22-21 in the RDS on New Year’s Day. Granted, Jacques Nienaber’s new defensive system was still very much in its infancy back then, and the teething problems were exposed by Billy Burns’ clever kicking game into vast acres of space on the edges.

There doesn’t appear to be much between them, witness ten internationals in Ulster’s starting line-up and 11 in Leinster’s XV. How cohesive Leinster will be remains to be seen, although seemingly makeshift sides have done achieved a potent rhythm countless times before. But in another one-score game, home advantage and their greater need could tilt the outcome Ulster’s way.

Ulster: Ethan McIlroy; Mike Lowry, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole; Kieran Treadwell, Alan O’Connor (capt); Cormac Izuchukwu, David McCann, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Tom Stewart, Andy Warwick, Scott Wilson, Harry Sheridan, Matty Rea, Nathan Doak, Stewart Moore, Jude Postlethwaite.

Leinster: Hugo Keenan; Tommy O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, Charlie Ngatai, Rob Russell; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa; James Ryan (capt), Brian Deeny; Max Deegan, Will Connors, Jack Conan.

Replacements: John McKee, Michael Milne, Thomas Clarkson, Ross Molony, Scott Penny, Luke McGrath, Sam Prendergast, Ben Brownlee.

Referee: Andrea Piardi (Italy)

Forecast: Ulster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times