Ulster set to keep making great strides on the road
The 'sold out' signs were up for this one weeks ago, but for many punters this evening's visit to the RDS will be akin to turning up to watch the panto without either Snow White or Sammy Sausages.
Like pulling a festive cracker only to find it bereft of paper thin hats and even weaker gags, Leinster's great entertainers have been sidelined en masse for this home clash with their northern rivals.
For starters, no Brian O'Driscoll in what, for some at least, could have been their last chance to see the great man in action. Should have gone to Edinburgh instead, folks. No Jamie Heaslip either. No Gordon D'Arcy. No Rob Kearney. No Ian Madigan.
In contrast, Ulster may have sidelined their overseas stars but they have unveiled what is effectively an all-Irish-qualified XV. Mark Anscombe must be a canny Cluedo player because nobody saw such a strong selection coming.
And so, while Matt O'Connor pleads for a better performance from his men, he will hope that his side have the ingredients in the back-row and midfield defence to do so. Leinster will hope their Tullow Tank -- Sean O'Brien -- can replicate the powerful impact of his four-legged namesake on the mushy Leopardstown turf yesterday. The back-row battle will be key.
For if Ulster's backline can eke out enough front-foot ball, they can replicate the damage they did to Leinster's defence when they stole a significant victory here during the regular season last March.
"I think we've got to get better parity at set-piece," declared O'Connor, seeking to stave off a hat-trick of defeats with a hat-trick of Christmas wishes. "We've got to defend better. We've got to look after the ball. They are probably the three biggest things of the last couple of weeks where we've let ourselves down.
"You can't be turning the ball over with handling errors and inefficient stuff at the breakdown against very good sides."
It can't have been an ideal preparation for O'Connor; on Monday, he hadn't an earthly idea who may be available to face Ulster this evening.
And, while Anscombe may have surprised many with his starting line-up, it seems as if he may have done so within a much more coherent framework, and his bench looks much stronger too.
For sure, it can't help Leinster that they start a big-game week without any clear indication what players may or may not be available for selection.
Nevertheless, they remain a respected and feared opposition within the European game regardless of their cast list, as former Ireland centre and Ulster assistant coach Johnny Bell acknowledged as his side attempt to clamber into a similar air space.
"If you'd talked to us a few years ago, we would have been envious of their strength in depth and overall package," he said. "We respect them, they're a great side and a tremendous organisation, but we're trying to achieve things here as well and we're taking great strides to achieve that.
"We feel that what we need to do is win some silverware. And while we won the double against them last year, which was great, we fell at the final hurdle in what we wanted to achieve.
"We respect Leinster but we feel we're up there in contention and that's where we want to be."
Ulster carry a stout defensive record with them to Dublin; nobody has crossed the whitewash in 267 minutes against them. Leinster haven't scored a try in their last two winless games.
"Aw mate, did you see the game in Edinburgh?" O'Connor attempted to mitigate. Still, they have gone from prolific to profligate in double quick time. Ulster will back their defence to maintain the impressive shut-out.
"They've done a tremendous job," admitted defence expert Bell. "Little things like away to Treviso, being well ahead and seeing them camped on the line, it would have been easy to just say, 'take the points'.
"That resolve shows me a lot of character and encourages me more than clean sheets. But as soon as you rest on your laurels and count your minutes, you're in trouble."
Leinster's sole defeat at the RDS since the 2012 Pro12 final was the coruscating March defeat to tonight's opponents in this equivalent fixture last season; a notable coup as it represented Leinster's only home defeat to a fellow Irish province in some five years.
However, although Ulster won both regular-season encounters against Leinster in the Pro12 last season, the 24-18 defeat in the final at the RDS -- after the top-seeded northerners nominated the RDS due to Ravenhill's refurbishment -- was the only result that really mattered between the pair last season.
In the same way, Leinster will point to their 2012 Heineken Cup final drubbing of Ulster as a reminder that they have the edge when it comes to the decisive encounters between these pair. Rather than fret about that intense reverse last spring, Leinster will recognise that the visitors have lost all seven of their other most recent visits to the RDS.
While Ulster may look to be in fine fettle, albeit in this season of top-class chasing, one has to be wary when sketching one's miniature bookie's pen through the pertinent form-lines. Although they won a fifth successive game in all competitions with their stuttering 13-6 home defeat of Zebre last week, four of them came against Italian sides.
Still, Ulster's only setback on the road since September was a 17-9 loss at Scarlets at the start of November, while Anscombe's side have won their last three away games in the regular season against fellow Irish provinces.
Leinster -- Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Macken, N Reid, L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; M Bent, A Dundon, M Moore; L Cullen (capt), M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O'Brien, J Murphy. Replacements: J Tracy, M Ross, J O'Connell, T Denton, D Ryan, L McGrath, I Madigan, D Fanning.
Ulster -- R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack (capt), S Doyle, R Wilson. Replacements: N Annett, T Court, R Lutton, N McComb, M McComish, R Pienaar, J Payne, M Allen.
Ref -- J Lacey (IRFU).
LEINSTER V ULSTER,
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