Leinster's local produce providing perfect blend
ULSTER have not had a bad 2011 (see panel), Heineken Cup quarter-finalists for the first time since 1999, Magners League semi-finalists and a decent start to their 2012 European campaign with three wins from four.
They have spent big up north, and they have spent foreign and, though they did not confirm as much, the IRFU's proposals to promote indigenous talent must have been influenced to some degree by the Ravenhill situation. The signing of 36-year-old Stefan Terblanche on a short-term, injury cover deal was a cheque too far and made a mockery of all the positive noises being made about Ulster's ultra-modern Academy facilities.
Far more encouraging than the over-priced, overseas influx has been the development of home-grown talent such as Paul Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Nevin Spence and Paddy McAllister and this has been the best thing about Ulster in 2011 -- that, and Stephen Ferris's return to fitness and stunning form.
They are still in search of a definable style of playing, but are at their best when combining abrasive forward play with high tempo use of their backline, under the baton of out-half Ian Humphreys.
But, all-in-all, a reasonable return in 2011 for Ulster as evidenced by a half-decent win ratio of 63pc (although you could argue it should be higher given the import outlay).
However, Ulster's 2011 slinks into the shadows as soon as you compare it to their St Stephen's Day derby opponents Leinster, who are lining up another Pro12 victory in their RDS lair this evening.
Heineken Cup champions, Magners League runners-up and riding high in both competitions again heading into 2012, Leinster have had a wonderful 2011 -- with a win ratio of 81pc telling you all you need to know.
Unlike Ulster, there was no over-dependence on overseas players, although Isa Nacewa and Nathan Hines played significant roles in Leinster's success and Heinke van der Merwe was a quality addition to their front-row resources.
But Leinster's Irish players were leading the way, spear-headed by European Player of the Year Sean O'Brien and a host of fellow internationals who went onto to form the majority of Ireland's World Cup effort in the autumn.
While players always want as much game-time as possible, the rotation system under Joe Schmidt has been working as smoothly as it has been allowed by the complications of injury and the Player Management Programme.
The team selections for this encounter provide a window in the respective provinces.
Ulster, obviously focusing on the home clash against Munster in four days' time and constricted by certain Player Management stipulations, have named what almost amounts to an AIL team, featuring five debutants -- including a couple of teenagers in full-back Peter Nelson and centre Chris Farrell (so it turns out there were talented young backs to provide an alternative to Terblanche).
Simon Danielli is the old crooner in the boy-band backline that sees James McKinney partnered with Marshall at half-back.
There is a bit more experience up front in the shape of hooker and captain Nigel Brady, second-row Tim Barker
and No 8 Robbie Diack, but plenty of youth also, with the bench similarly callow, save for the rock-like presence of Tom Court.
It is good to see young Irish talent get this opportunity, but they would have been better served by having a bit more heft around them and this is a selection that, effectively, concedes the result before a ball is kicked in anger.
Leinster have rested a raft of front-liners who featured in last weekend's romp against Bath, but Schmidt is still able to name a team containing 10 Ireland internationals led by captain Shane Jennings.
The on-fire Luke Fitzgerald switches to full-back to accommodate Fionn Carr, while Fergus McFadden moves to 13 to make way for Gordon D'Arcy at 12.
This aids McFadden's candidacy for Brian O'Driscoll's outside centre slot in the Six Nations, but he is the form inside centre in the country at present and you feel that is where his long-term future lies with Ireland.
Ian Madigan (pictured below) gets another chance to demonstrate the out-half talents that have become very apparent this season, while Leo Auva'a brings his power-running to the No 8 slot. Leinster's bench is equally well stacked and features Jamie Hagan, who has, unfortunately, gone backwards since his ill-advised decision to leave Connacht.
Leinster have racked up 50 points twice in their last three matches and this has the potential to be another rollicking confirmation of their strength in depth as their wonder year draws to a close.
LEINSTER -- L Fitzgerald; D Kearney, F McFadden, G D'Arcy, F Carr; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; D Browne, D Toner, K McLaughlin, S Jennings (capt), L Auva'a. Reps: R Strauss, J McGrath, J Hagan, S Sykes, R Ruddock, I Boss, E O'Malley, A Conway
ULSTER -- P Nelson; C Cochrane, M Allen, C Farrell, S Danielli; J McKinney, P Marshall; C Black, N Brady (capt), A Macklin; T Barker, L Stevenson; N McComb, A Birch, R Diack. Reps: N Annett, J Cronin, T Court, J Simpson, C Joyce, I Porter, S Olding, C Gaston.
REF -- P Fitzgibbon (Ireland)
Leinster v Ulster,
Live, RTE 2, 5.30