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Landmark 200th game for Rory Best as Ulster eye overdue win

Leinster without Sexton and Henshaw at a sold-out Kingspan Stadium in Belfast

Rory Best: “To play 200 times for this province, you’d never dream of that. Photograph: Arthur Allison.

Ulster v Leinster, Kingspan Stadium. Kick-Off: 6.30pm.

(On TV: Live on BBC2 NI and Sky Sports Action)

This should be fairly full on. It’s a measure of the enduring appeal of these interpro derbies that coming within a week of the opening European skirmishes the Kingspan Stadium is sold out.

Amid the usual backdrop – domestic bragging rights, 16 players named in the autumnal Irish squad pitching up a fortnight before the South African game – it’s also easy to overlook the game’s potentially huge importance in the bigger scheme of things.

As we come to grips with the Guinness Pro14’s new conference format, the outcome of today’s game could have huge ramifications come the season’s end.

For example, as things stand Ulster are second in Conference B, ahead of Leinster on points’ difference, and while there is a long way to go, and were this the cut-off point Ulster would be at home to the Cheetahs in one quarter-final, with Leinster away to Munster in the other.

Both sides make a number of changes. Rory Best and Rodney Ah You come into the Ulster front row, while Iain Henderson retains the captaincy, as he shifts from flanker to lock, and Jean Deysel returns at number eight.

With John Cooney ruled out, the Ballynahinch scrumhalf Aaron Cairns will make his first senior start, while Luke Marshall and Jacob Stockdale are recalled to the backline. Academy scrumhalf Jonny Stewart is in line for his senior debut from the bench.

Leinster welcome back Rob Kearney and Seán O’Brien from injury, with the latter handed the captaincy in the absence of Johnny Sexton who, along with Robbie Henshaw, was not considered “due to knocks taken in training during the week”. However, yesterday’s press release said neither player is a long-term injury concern.

Rory O’Loughlin also returns from injury, while Jamison Gibson-Park and Ross Byrne form a new half-back combination. Jack McGrath is recalled at loosehead, James Ryan is restored to the second row, and likewise Dan Leavy and Jordi Murphy alongside O’Brien to the back row.

Surprise exclusion

Following on from his surprise exclusion from the Irish squad, Sean Cronin is rested as Richardt Strauss is named in a match-day squad for the first time this season having recovered from a knee injury.

The bookies cannot separate them, but Ulster have not lost at the Kingspan Stadium in the Pro14 since a 14-15 reversal to Munster exactly a year ago. Furthermore, the last eight meetings between the two have all been won by the home side, with Leinster’s last win here by 22-20 in May 2014.

The occasion is also given special significance in that it marks Best’s 200th game for Ulster, making the hugely popular hooker the fourth player to achieve the feat.

“It really doesn’t seem that long ago since the first cap,” he said earlier this week. “It would be nice to be selected and have that milestone. To play 200 times for this province, you’d never dream of that. You dream of playing for them maybe, but 200 caps is, whenever you get away from it and reflect, you’ll be proud. I think for me personally, it’s preparing well to fit into a team that’s going well and to do my part.”

Most of all, one ventures, Best would like the day decorated with an overdue win. In one of the more surprising anomalies of 2017, Best has not been on a winning side once with Ulster; his last win having come on December 23rd in the home win against Connacht. His delayed seasonal reappearance was his seventh loss with his home province since then.

“I don’t even know when it was,” he said, before being informed of the date. “Okay, it was a while ago,” he conceded with a smile. “It’s mildly frustrating. Obviously the way we tailed off last season, was disappointing but it was last season. When you look at this first part of the season, that first Pro14 run, five out of six is very good and we would have taken it.”

“Obviously we didn’t expect to lose the one we did [against Zebre] but if we can finish off this section strong into the Autumn internationals, you can see that we’ve taken a lot of forward steps and that’s the main thing. It would be nice to be back in an Ulster shirt and back winning. Hopefully it wasn’t anything to do with me and it’s just the way we tailed off last season.” 

ULSTER: C Piutau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, A Cairns; C Black, R Best, R Ah You, A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt), S Reidy, C Henry, J Deysel. Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, Kieran Treadwell, Robbie Diack, Jonny Stewart, Peter Nelson, Louis Ludik. 

LEINSTER: R Kearney; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, D Leavy, J Murphy, S O’Brien (capt). Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy, A Porter, R Molony, J Conan, L McGrath, C Marsh, J Larmour.

Referee: J Lacey.

Overall Pro14 head to head: Played 33. Ulster 7 wins. 2 Draws. Leinster 24 wins. 
Betting (Paddy Powers): 5/6 Ulster, 17/1 Draw, Evens Leinster.
Forecast: Ulster to win.