As regular season games go, the stakes here are higher than is even usually the case for an interpro derby. Aside from the manifold implications at the upper end of the Guinness Pro12 table, quite simply these are two sides short on confidence. Hence, while one is liable to have a New Year pick-me-up, the other will remain a little down in the dumps.
With league positions having assumed a greater importance than ever this season, and the four provinces again joined at the hip from third to sixth position, Leinster go into the weekend in sixth place. Defeat could thus leave them four or five points outside the play-offs whereas a win would elevate them back into the top four, if they also denied Ulster a bonus point. Victory would propel Ulster into third above Munster, but another defeat would compound their somewhat limp pre-Christmas failure to mount a challenge for qualification into the last eight in Europe.
Significantly too perhaps, the RDS has been sold out and while Leinster have had their wobbles on the road this season, and in the past two seasons have lost at the Aviva to Northampton and Munster, their one unyielding source of comfort is their phenomenal record at their Ballsbridge home.
They have won their last 19 matches at the venue since drawing with the Ospreys at the start of last season, and are unbeaten in 25 games at the RDS since Ulster beat a team then coached by Michael Cheika in March 2013.
Since then, Leinster have beaten Ulster four times in succession, including a League final and semi-final at this venue in each of the last two seasons. What’s more, Ulster’s form on the road – which had seen them storm the Altrad Stadium in Montpellier, Welford Road and Thomond Park last season – has utterly deserted them this season, and they have lost their last five away games to Zebre, Leicester, Munster, the Scarlets and the Ospreys since this season’s sole success on their travels against Cardiff in September.
Matt O’Connor has assuredly strengthened Leinster’s hand in recalling five Irish internationals in
, Jack McGrath,
and the fit again Fergus McFadden, who starts on the right wing in place of Darragh Fanning after recovering from surgery on a thumb injury after the game against the Ospreys in November.
Ben Te'o also returns to the match-day squad and is on the bench for the first time since fracturing his forearm during his unfortunate debut against Edinburgh in October. However, Dominic Ryan is still observing the return to play protocols and Eoin Reddan is also still missing.
Ian Madigan, still the favourite to start at out-half for Ireland in the opening defence of their Six Nations crown away to Italy, partners Isaac Boss again as he continues his audition for the Irish number 10 jersey in what ought to be a revealing head-to-head against Paddy Jackson, who looks even more shorn of confidence than some of his teammates.
Similarly, Neil Doak has undoubtedly strengthened Ulster's hand by recalling the fit again Ruan Pienaar, as well as Rory Best and Tommy Bowe, who were rested for the home win over Connacht, with Stuart Olding also promoted to inside centre. To accommodate the return of Bowe, the League's all- time leading try scorer with 58, Peter Nelson moves to fullback while Craig Gilroy switches flanks to the left wing.
Indeed, with each team’s cutting edge having been sharpened, with each having had an eight-day turnaround, and the rain forecast to relent by kick- off, this has the makings of an entertaining affair for the full house.
The true scale of Ulster’s defeat to the Ospreys was masked by a couple of late tries after the home side had secured their bonus point before the 50th minute, but what was truly alarming prior to that was the lack of line speed and intensity in the Ulster defence. Well and all as the Ospreys played that day, and they could and should have scored more, Ulster missed 21 tackles; endemic of a looseness that has increasingly crept into their play of late.
Desire to atone
Perhaps the sight of Leinster, and what ought to be a huge desire to atone for their last two seasons both ending painfully at this venue, will galvanise them. And with their European
pool games in January now no more than academic – albeit demanding a degree of pride – fixtures such as these should assume a greater importance in their itinerary.
Despite their porous defence, and a lack of real ballast up front especially against the bigger teams, there’s no doubting Ulster’s firepower, all the more so with the talismanic Pienaar, Bowe and Gilroy back in the mix. Unlike Leinster, they have also retained more of a cutting edge, particularly in their strike moves.
Leinster showed signs of improved back play against Munster on St Stephen’s Day, but their pack was ultimately well beaten. With Heaslip, Toner, McGrath and Ross back in harness, that ought not be the case today, and their backline is beginning to resemble a first- choice look to it.