30 September 2022
Ulster are well-coached, believe in their game-plan and have weapons across the park capable of hurting opponents
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland. Photo: Inpho

Dear reader,

Tonight at Ravenhill, Ireland’s two best teams go head to head in what should be the game of the URC so far.

Well, maybe that’s stretching things after Scarlets and Ulster played out a try-fest of epic proportions in Llanelli last weekend, but in terms of the quality of teams on show, the consequences for the season ahead and a rivalry that means something to both sets of players it is a proper match-up.

Munster may not be happy with the above assessment, but they can’t argue the case right now. Certainly, my colleague Brendan Fanning saw a major gulf in standards between the sides’ two performances in Wales last weekend.

Ulster have all the things Graham Rowntree is aspiring towards; they’re well-coached, believe in their game-plan and have weapons across the park capable of hurting opponents.

Their players are probably aggrieved at not getting Ireland recognition more often, but Dan McFarland is the chief beneficiary as he’s able to keep his core group together for longer, building the cohesion and familiarity in the game-plan that has allowed the team to hit the ground running in such impressive fashion when others are scratching around, trying to find form.

As well as a clear playing identity, they also have a togetherness that impresses. Players recruited from elsewhere have bought in fully, there’s an increasingly local voice which is important in garnering support.

Tonight, they welcome a Leinster side they beat twice last season. In between homages to Stuart Lancaster, the main message coming out of the blue corner has been how aggrieved they are at that statistic.

Ulster are in elite company in this regard. Only Saracens and La Rochelle have beaten Leinster twice in a row in recent years.

And, while the Leinster sides they beat were perhaps below Champions Cup quality, the northern province were impressive away from those games and were unlucky in both their knockout exits.

Can they take the next step?

Well, they’re certainly poised to do so now. According to statistics provided by URC, Ulster have narrowed their average margin of defeat from 25.1 in 2018/19 to nine last season, with an incremental improvement every year in between.

Similarly, their tackle success has got progressively better and they have consistently been a play-offs team under McFarland.

Externally, they will be judged by trophies and Iain Henderson spoke in pre-season about how he craves a moment of glory in a white jersey.

It’s not that long ago since Brian O’Driscoll was describing Ulster as a “basket-case” in the wake of the Belfast trial.

McFarland and his coaches have done an excellent job, but they’ll know the final step is the hardest.

As they found out in heart-breaking fashion in Cape Town last June, the South Africans have changed the game and there’s fears that the tight-five depth is just shy of the quality needed to compete against the biggest and best sides.

With Jason Jenkins adding beef to that Leinster pack, tonight will test that theory.

Leinster are acutely aware that Ulster are the coming team and, while Munster may mean more traditionally, this is the derby that matters most this season because these two will be fighting for home spots in the play-offs.

Ulster have looked slick this season, but overcoming their neighbours will be a statement win.

Reader’s Corner

Last week, I got to sit down with one of the protagonists from tonight’s game. Ryan Baird was a fascinating interviewee, a young man who knows where he’s going and a player who spoke with rare openness about his interests off the pitch and ambitions on it.

In the wake of this week's news that former Ireland internationals David Corkery and Declan Fitzpatrick, alongside ex-Leinster and Connacht player Ben Marshall are taking proceedings against the IRFU, the provinces they represented, and World Rugby in the High Court, I have examined how the concussion issue is becoming an existential threat to the game as we know it.

I joined Will Slattery and Luke Fitzgerald on The Left Wing to discuss the possibility of Johnny Sexton replacing Stuart Lancaster and much, much more, while Cian Tracey has looked at this afternoon’s Emerging Ireland game and the opportunity that knocks for Munster’s Jack Crowley.

As ever, please get in touch with any questions or comments to r.oconnor@independent.ie.

Enjoy the weekend,

Ruaidhri

This weekend’s games on TV

Today:

Griquas v Emerging Ireland, 12.30, irishrugby.ie.

Bulls v Connacht, 5.30; RTÉ, Premier Sports.

Ulster v Leinster, 7.35, RTÉ, Premier Sports.

Saturday: Munster v Zebre Parma, 5.05; RTÉ, Premier Sports.

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