Weakened Ulster travel south more in hope than expectation

Leinster welcome back internationals for sold-out RDS clash with northern rivals

Leinster’s Jack Conan: standout player in defeat by Munster makes way for Jamie Heaslip in Ulster clash. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Pro 12 Leinster v Ulster RDS, 3pm – Sky Sports 2

Another interprovincial scheduled by the Guinness Pro 12 to ensure minimum competitiveness. Just like Leinster going down to Limerick with second-choice options in most positions, Ulster journey south without their key Ireland internationals.

No other league, no other sport, in their right mind would fix these marquee matches at a time of season when the Irish player management system is in full flow. Anyway, let this be yet another lesson.

Ulster come to an 18,200 sold-out RDS without Rory Best, Iain Henderson, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Luke Marshall and Jared Payne.

Some of those men are injured, to be fair, and there is an enticing battle of the wingers as Andrew Trimble returns,while Tommy Bowe will test all parts of Adam Byrne's development.


It’s not a completely dud Ulster side but Best, Henderson and Jackson, along with Ruan Pienaar, switched to outhalf here, are how Ulster launch most attacks.

Serious inroads

The Leinster pack will be expected to make serious inroads. All their major figures are back from Ireland camp. Seán O’Brien is at blindside, as Josh van der Flier looks impossible to drop for big games nowadays. Devin Toner returning to the secondrow with Jack McGrath at loosehead means the structural reliability of Leinster, which struggled under pressure against a full-strength


, should be in evidence.

Isa Nacewa is in his preferred fullback slot and the captain will probably keep the kicking tee away from Ross Byrne.

Byrne, to his credit, showed glimpses of being able to control a match with his right boot in Thomond Park on St Stephen’s Day. That was before he was starved of any decent ball.

That won’t be the case here.

Jack Conan – Leinster’s most effective player in that 29-17 defeat, which leaves them lying third in the table and five points adrift of leaders Munster – has also made way for Jamie Heaslip.

Again, fair enough, but Conan, not unlike van der Flier, won’t be held off forever. He has too much quality.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone from anywhere else,” said Conan, when asked this week about growing pains in the Leinster queue. “I know for me when I was growing up, I didn’t want to be a professional player, I wanted to be a Leinster player.

“I’m a very loyal to this club and they’ve stuck by me. At times they’ve given me opportunities when they didn’t need to. For the moment I’m here and giving it my all and then I’ll see what happens down the line.”

Backrow talent

The presence of so much backrow talent – Dan Leavy misses out on this squad entirely despite impressing last week – has been generating the healthiest situation that can be found anywhere on planet rugby.

“We all push each other on,” Conan continued. “It is helpful and if there are any criticisms, it’s always constructive. Nobody ever tears anyone down.

“If I am struggling with a bit of knowledge or details with the plays, I will turn to Jamie, I will turn to Rhys or Dan or Josh or Jordi or anyone and get their advice on it and see how they do it. There’s no trying to show anybody up. Everyone is for the betterment of the team. The standard is higher and we try to push each other on.

“The club is bigger than any individual and it’s about taking your opportunity when you get it. Your months or your weeks of just training and not getting the chance to play are redeemed by Leo giving you the call.

“You’ve got to take the jersey and realise this opportunity may not come around too quickly again, somebody else may come back in the team. You have to fulfil the coaches’ faith in you for giving you the jersey in the first place.”

Healthy elite

Those are words from a healthy elite sporting environment.

Ulster are fourth in the table, five points behind Leinster, but that should shoot out to nine or 10 by this evening’s full-time whistle.

“They might not have as many internationals as we have, but they still have a good pedigree,” Conan added. “Reidy won his first cap back in the summer, Chris Henry has a good few caps for Ireland . . . so they are not lacking in talent.

“We know the dangers they’ll bring and they like to play an expansive wide game – they’ve got the skills to do it and the players to do it.”

There is All Black magician Charles Piutau to consider, the challenge being to starve such a magnificent attacker of decent possession.

That is the primary challenge for Leinster. Do that and the rest will fall into line.

LEINSTER: Isa Nacewa (capt); Adam Byrne, Garry Ringrose, Noel Reid, Rory O'Loughlin; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath; Jack McGrath, Seán Cronin, Michael Bent; Devin Toner, Hayden Triggs; Seán O'Brien, Josh van der Flier, Jamie Heaslip. Replacements: Richardt Strauss, Andrew Porter, Jeremy Loughman, Mick Kearney, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Tom Daly, Zane Kirchner.

ULSTER: Charles Piutau; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart McCloskey, Tommy Bowe; Ruan Pienaar, Paul Marshall; Andy Warwick, Rob Herring (capt), Rodney Ah You, Kieran Treadwell, Franco van der Merwe; Clive Ross, Seán Reidy, Roger Wilson. Replacements: John Andrew, Calum Black, Jonny Simpson, Pete Browne, Chris Henry, Brett Herron, Louis Ludik, Jacob Stockdale.

Referee: John Lacey (IRFU, 58th competition game) Verdict: Home win.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent