Pro14 Rainbow Cup: Leinster v Ulster
Kick-off: 8pm, Friday. Venue: RDS Arena. On TV: Live on eir Sport 1 (deferred coverage on TG4 at 10.30pm).
Another round of Rainbow Cup matches and another round of Irish derbies, which rather tests the theory that you can have too much of a good thing. This latest instalment is these sides’ fifth meeting since the resumption last August and as much as any of the previous four it appears to find Leinster in an altogether better place.
Although both provinces suffered first round derby losses at home in this competition and then significantly more painful semi-final European exits a week later, Leinster responded by recovering from a 16-0 deficit in Galway to bully Connacht in the Sportsground and run up a half century, whereas Ulster were pretty much bullied form start to finish by Munster in Thomond Park.
Leo Cullen’s response has been to refresh his side with a dozen new faces added to the matchday squad and 10 changes to the starting XV, the headline selection being the return of Caelan Doris at 8 for his first game since the win over Munster in January.
Two of their four newly bestowed Lions, Tadhg Furlong and Robbie Henshaw, are recalled to the starting XV, as are Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Ryan Baird, James Ryan, Josh Murphy, Josh van der Flier, Jordan Larmour and the fit again Jimmy O’Brien at fullback.
In addition to the 13 Irish internationals in their starting lineup, they have also restored Rónan Kelleher, the retiring Michael Bent and Devin Toner on the bench, where they are joined by another of their Lions in Jack Conan.
Dan McFarland has responded to his side’s mauling by making a dozen changes to Ulster’s starting lineup with Jacob Stockdale, Stuart McCloskey and captain Iain Henderson the only three players retained.
Robert Baloucoune and Craig Gilroy are restored to the wings, as is James Hume in the absence of Will Addison, whose red card in his comeback last week has led to a four-game ban.
Billy Burns is back at outhalf, and in the absence of John Cooney (neck injury), Dave Shanahan is afforded his first start of the season with academy scrumhalf Nathan Doak in line for his second senior appearance off the bench.
Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring and Marty Moore are all restored en bloc, as are Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney and Matty Rea in the backrow, while Wallabies lock Sam Carter makes a first start since January. As well as the quartet of one-time Leinster men in the starting XV, Alan O’Connor, Greg Jones and Ian Madigan are among the replacements.
It’s a selection that suggests Ulster are eager to restore some pride, albeit their season has rather fallen off a cliff with those three defeats in succession. In each of the last two seasons Ulster have shown an ability to embark on long winning runs but, equally, when the wheels come off they do so emphatically, witness four defeats in their last five games of the 2019-20 campaign following the resumption. It suggests a side that struggles to come to terms with defeats.
Furthermore, Ulster could feel entitled to travel to Dublin both a little wearily and with a sense of foreboding. Not only have they lost the previous four meetings since rugby’s return, they have lost five in a row against Leinster and have a particularly unproductive return from trips to Dublin in recent years.
They have lost on their last 13 visits, be it the RDS or the Aviva Stadium, since a 22-18 win at the former in March 2013, when Rob Herring and Iain Henderson, who scored one of their two tries, were on the Ulster bench. Healy, Toner and Dave Kearney were in the Leinster lineup, as were Madigan (who kicked six penalties) and Cooney, who was a replacement.
Otherwise, Ulster have lost on 25 of their last 26 visits to Dublin since the turn of the millennium, dating back to a 26-15 win in August 1999 at Donnybrook in the old interprovincial championship.
Even allowing for that, odds of 1/12 on a Leinster win, while making them 18 point favourites, seems excessive but then again aside from being a well-oiled machine, as was shown again last week, they can be a ruthless one.
In terms of the Rainbow Cup, Ulster have nothing tangible while Leinster mathematically still do. It remains to be seen if second place over five matches in a 12-team format will earn a place in a final confined to teams from the ‘northern’ half of the competition, or if only top spot earns qualification for a cross-hemisphere final.
If the latter, Leinster would need Munster to slip up either at home to Connacht on Friday, or away to Cardiff or Zebre, while Benetton could also keep the top two out of reach by beating Zebre (home) again on Saturday, Connacht (home) and Ospreys (away).
In any event, currently fifth, Leinster just have to keep on winning, starting here, then Glasgow away in three weeks’ time and finally the Dragons at home. One suspects they’ll do just that.
Leinster: Jimmy O'Brien; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Dave Kearney; Ross Byrne, Luke McGrath (C); Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Tadhg Furlong; Ryan Baird, James Ryan; Josh Murphy, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris. Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Michael Milne, Michael Bent, Devin Toner, Jack Conan, Cormac Foley, Rory O'Loughlin, Tommy O'Brien.
Ulster: Jacob Stockdale; Robert Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Craig Gilroy; Billy Burns, David Shanahan; Eric O'Sullivan, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Sam Carter, Iain Henderson (capt); Matty Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney. Replacements: Brad Roberts, Callum Reid, Tom O'Toole, Alan O'Connor, Greg Jones, Nathan Doak, Ian Madigan, Rob Lyttle.
Referee: Mike Adamson (SRU).