The teams are out for Ulster’s first European quarter final in five years as they take on Leinster in the Aviva Stadium tomorrow evening.
Dan McFarland has made eight changes to the side and there’s a big welcome back for Luke Marshall who starts on the bench. Luke makes his first appearance since the Champions Cup play off at the end of last season.
Eric O’Sullivan and Rory Best return to front row duties while Marty Moore has shaken off an injury to start at tight head prop. Ulster continue to feed Iain Henderson miracle grow as he returns to the second row, however I doubt that he was ever going to miss this match. Kieran Treadwell will provide dynamism along side Henderson. A back row of Nick Timoney, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee will get through a lot of work tomorrow and a collective impressive performance could tip the match in Ulster’s favour. Making 27 tackles last week, and 262 so far this season, Timoney’s work rate is impressive, something that is required if Ulster are to win in Dublin against Leinster for the first time in six years.
John Cooney returns to the scrum half berth and is partnered alongside Billy Burns. With Ulster going through an outside centre crisis, Darren Cave gets the nod while Stuart McCloskey joins him at inside centre. Cave has the unenviable task of keeping Garry Ringrose on a tight leash. Michael Lowry gets the nod at fullback after Ludik’s injury. His jinking feet which saw him make three clean breaks and beat seven defenders last week will pose problems for Leinster who have selected an equally flamboyant player in Jordan Larmour. Jacob Stockdale and Robert Baloucoune start on the wings and neither need an introduction.
In Ulster’s last three trips to D4 they’ve afforded Leinster with a quick start. In January, the away side were blitzed when Sean Cronin picked a lovely line to score the opening try after five minutes. Last season, it was Jordan Larmour with the early try and the year before, Rory O’Loughlin scored after six minutes. In those previous games, Ulster mistakes have allowed Leinster to make these fast starts so it’s not out of the question to gain parity from the early stages. Ideally, it would be great to lay down an early marker Ferris-esque or similar to Wales’ start in their Grand Slam match against Ireland.
While Ulster have their share of injuries, as do Leinster. Devin Toner is a big loss in the second row but a major boost for Ulster. In recent matches the Irish international has dominated the lineout with Ulster losing three in the last match he played against the northern province in January 2018. Similarly, James Lowe misses out due to international registration restrictions, Josh van der Flier is out for 12 weeks but his absence is softened by the return of Dan Leavy to the bench. Johnny Sexton is the most notable absence with Ross Byrne coming in at ten while Rob Kearney starts on the bench.
Ulster have shown a dramatic improvement in their lineout in recent weeks, losing just one in their last four games. This has allowed them to develop a maul, which they have benefitted from; Rob Herring scored a hat trick against Zebre at the end of February, they were awarded a penalty try against Benetton Rugby in round 16 while John Andrew scored his first try of the season against Southern Kings from one. Leinster’s pack will be a different level to what Ulster have faced recently, but they have more than enough in the tank to compete at the lineout and it could be a real strength on Saturday.
A back row of Timoney, Murphy and Coetzee has been impressive this season and much of Ulster’s success in this competition is down to them. They face another great challenge against Ruddock, O’Brien and Conan tomorrow evening. They must, along with Best and Henderson, slow Leinster’s ruck ball down and if they can better their opposition, it will go a long way to securing an Ulster victory. We’ll see all three players make close to 20 tackles each and get through an insane amount of work.
Tomorrow is a measure of how far Ulster have come in such a short period of time. Regardless of the result, a good performance would stand this young side in good stead for the future and show that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Ulster Rugby.
The FRU predicts: Leinster are deserved favourites for this match but they have not been in as red hot form as they were last season. Ulster certainly have a chance and they must weather Leinster’s blitzing start, but I think this will be just one step too far for this relatively inexperienced Ulster side. Leinster by 7.
|Jordan Larmour||15||Michael Lowry|
|Adam Byrne||14||Robert Baloucoune|
|Garry Ringrose||13||Darren Cave|
|Rory O’Loughlin||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|Dave Kearney||11||Jacob Stockdale|
|Ross Byrne||10||Billy Burns|
|Luke McGrath||9||John Cooney|
|Cian Healy||1||Eric O’Sullivan|
|Sean Cronin||2||Rory Best|
|Tadhg Furlong||3||Marty Moore|
|Scott Fardy||4||Iain Henderson|
|James Ryan||5||Kieran Treadwell|
|Rhys Ruddock||6||Nick Timoney|
|Sean O’Brien||7||Jordi Murphy|
|Jack Conan||8||Marcell Coetzee|
|James Tracey||16||Rob Herring|
|Ed Byrne||17||Andy Warwick|
|Andrew Porter||18||Wiehahn Herbst|
|Mick Kearney||19||Alan O’Connor|
|Dan Leavy||20||Sean Reidy|
|Jamison Gibson-Park||21||Dave Shanahan|
|Noel Reid||22||Luke Marshall|
|Rob Kearney||23||Angus Kernohan|