Tadhg Furlong on form as Leinster set their sights on Ulster

Ulster boast talent in youth as they come up against physically robust favourites

Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong and Nick Timoney of Ulster in their Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup game at the RDS, Dublin on May 14th. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Leinster’s Tadhg Furlong and Nick Timoney of Ulster in their Guinness Pro14 Rainbow Cup game at the RDS, Dublin on May 14th. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

United Rugby Championship: Leinster v Ulster

Kick-off: 8pm, Saturday. Venue: RDS. On TV: Live on RTÉ2 and Premier Sports.

The United Rugby Championship (URC) can’t catch a break this season, the latest fixture kerfuffle provoked by the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant, B.1.1.529. Munster, Cardiff, the Scarlets and Zebre Parma are looking to escape South Africa with immediate effect, the country placed on a red travel list by Britain and Europe.

Leinster supporters will no doubt avail of the opportunity to celebrate Tadhg Furlong’s three-year contract extension, hoping that the hugely popular tighthead prop from Wexford continues his outstanding form which he exhibited lavishly in the recent Autumn Nations series.

Leo Cullen said: “Tadhg has been exceptional really. He had a very frustrating early part of last season where he missed a good chunk of time for Leinster and Ireland. Since he’s come back he’s been great, and from a personal point of view he went very well on the Lions series.

“He’s kicked off in good form this season, played a couple of games for us before the November series, and like a lot of guys has gone well which is really pleasing to see.”

Furlong is one of seven players who started the province’s 31-15 win in Glasgow last time out, arguably their best performance in an unbeaten run of five wins to date in the tournament.

Secondrow cover

Ross Molony, Dan Leavy, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Ciaran Frawley and Adam Byrne retain their places. Leinster don’t have secondrow cover on the bench – Rhys Ruddock would probably switch in from number eight if required – and Cullen was asked about the head injury that James Ryan suffered while playing for Ireland against Argentina last weekend.

Leinster’s head coach explained: “We’ll get James assessed and he will go through his graduated return-to-play and take however long that needs, basically. He’s in good hands and he’s seeing various different people as well. We’ll take care of him.”

Leinster Rugby Captain’s Run, RDS, Dublin 26/11/2021James Tracy Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ben Brady
James Carty during the Leinster Rugby Captain’s Run, at the RDS, Dublin. Photograph: ©INPHO/Ben Brady

Will Connors makes a Leinster matchday squad for the first time since last January following injury.

Ulster head coach Dan McFarland makes six changes from the side beaten by Connacht last time out. He is without Iain Henderson, a late injury withdrawal from the Ireland match, and Robert Baloucoune and Tom O’Toole, who both played against the Pumas. In better news scrumhalf John Cooney returns for the first time since picking up an injury in the opening match of the season.

Centres James Hume and Stuart McCloskey may have welts from holding tackle bags in the Irish camp for the last month without seeing any game time; so too Leinster’s Ciarán Frawley. All three will be keen to make a statement in performance terms. Robbie Henshaw’s presence ensures that the midfield grappling will be compulsory viewing.

Opportunity

It’s no different at halfback where Ulster’s Billy Burns and Cooney and their Leinster counterparts Ross Byrne and Luke McGrath won’t want to let an opportunity slide to try to force Ireland head coach Andy Farrell to rethink his preferences. Interprovincials offer that measuring metric.

Cullen acknowledged: “The motivation is strong for a number of guys that were very unlucky not to be involved in the November Series and there are a number of players in the other provinces who could feel the same watching on, dying to have a crack at guys.”

It’s also first versus second in the league table.

Ulster boast some excellent young players in wing Ethan McIlroy, number eight Dave McCann, replacement scrumhalf Nathan Doak and another fine prospect in hooker Tom Stewart, set to win a first cap off the bench. Michael Lowry’s football ability will shine irrespective of position but it’s a pity that he’s not enjoyed a run of matches in the 10 jersey.

McCann is a future Irish international if his development continues apace and this game is a brilliant yardstick by which to measure his progress. The same could be said of Scott Penny.

Leinster, perhaps the more physically robust team, are 15-point favourites on the handicap and while that feels a little bit harsh on the visitors, the home side, guided by an in-form Ross Byrne, should have a little in hand at the final whistle.

LEINSTER: J O’Brien; A Byrne, R Henshaw, C Frawley, J Larmour; R Byrne L McGrath (capt); E Byrne, J Tracy, T Furlong; R Molony, D Toner; D Leavy, S Penny, R Ruddock. Replacements: S Cronin, P Dooley, V Abdaladze, M Deegan, W Connors, N McCarthy, H Byrne, T O’Brien.

ULSTER: M Lowry; C Gilroy, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, M Moore; A O’Connor (capt), S Carter; G Jones, N Timoney, D McCann. Replacements: T Stewart, E O’Sullivan, R Kane, M Kearney, Marcus Rea, N Doak, A Curtis, R Lyttle.

Referee: F Murphy (IRFU)

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