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Bragging rights - plenty on line between best two provinces as Ulster look to cut Leinster down to size

Johnny Sexton kept in reserve with Blues seeking revenge against high-flying rivals in Belfast

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Head coach Leo Cullen and Jonathan Sexton at Leinster training earlier this week

Head coach Leo Cullen and Jonathan Sexton at Leinster training earlier this week

Head coach Leo Cullen and Jonathan Sexton at Leinster training earlier this week

But for the sliver of red on their sleeves, one could have been forgiven for mistaking Ulster for Leinster last weekend.

Wearing a dark blue away kit, the northern province gave as good an attacking performance as you’ll see all year in the United Rugby Championship as they tore the Scarlets apart.

Sure, they weren’t as stingy as they’d like to be without the ball and will be looking for major improvements in that area at the Kingspan Stadium tonight.

Leinster will be a tougher proposition than the Welsh region, of course, bringing their powerful pack, strong backline and a bench that includes Johnny Sexton and James Ryan to the table.

And yet, Ulster will have no fear.

They beat Leinster twice last season and were the closer of the two teams to reaching the URC final. Their trajectory under Dan McFarland has been one of steady improvement, and quietly, they’ll be confident of taking their visitors’ scalp this evening.

What makes it all the more interesting is the strength of the two sides.

League points and bragging rights are already on the table, but for a host of players, this is a chance to catch Andy Farrell’s eye.

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No doubt there’s a whole cast of Ulster stars who believe they should be higher up the food chain and the away team bus rolls into Ravenhill with a pound full of big dogs. 

Sure, there are a few Ireland starters who are still not ready to commence their campaigns or out injured, like Tadhg Furlong, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Hugo Keenan and Caelan Doris, but there’s enough quality in the visiting side for Ulster to be licking their lips.

Stuart McCloskey is in sensational form, and with Bundee Aki suspended for the build-up to November at least, he has a chance – opposite Robbie Henshaw – to make a real claim.

James Hume may remain out, but Luke Marshall has been excellent in the two games this season, but it’s Jacob Stockdale and Mike Lowry who will be hoping to catch Farrell’s eye.

John Cooney has probably resigned himself to a future outside of the Ireland squad, but he remains capable of dominating these games and keeping himself in the conversation while up front Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell and Nick Timoney are all in the frame and could do with big days.

In the away dressing-room, they’ll be talking about avenging those two defeats last year, but some individuals will want to perform for the same reasons, with Jimmy O’Brien, Jordan Larmour and Ryan Baird all out to catch the eye.

Leinster won’t want it to get too fast and loose too soon and the addition of Jason Jenkins to their tight-five means they’re quite happy to mix it and utilise a maul that looked unstoppable last week.

Back-to-back meetings with the Italians allowed them to ease their way into the season, but Belfast represents a step up for Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster’s side that has shown some frailties in their first two games.

They failed to protect the ball at home to Benetton and Ulster’s Rea brothers, Matty and Marcus, will be hungry on the deck, while against Zebre, they were off the pace defensively and a repeat will be meat and drink to the home side.

Still, there was a distinct improvement between weeks one and two and the hostile home crowd should see them go up another notch or two.

On paper and form, these are the best two teams in Ireland, and while Leinster have a proven track record in terms of consistency over a season, Ulster are capable of beating anyone when they get it right.

How they handle Leinster’s tight-five will be key, with Jenkins adding another weapon to the men in blue’s armoury.

Of course, bullying Italians is a different proposition from taking on the ever-consistent Alan O’Connor and Treadwell, but with Dan Sheehan flanked by a rejuvenated Andrew Porter and the impressive Michael Ala’alatoa, it’s a strong combination.

Both teams have quality on the bench, but it’s a luxury for Leinster to be able to bring Sexton into the fray. 

If things are tight, he can turn the tide, but it’s within Ulster’s capability to create and hold a lead.

This could be a statement win for the home side, one that would make this season all the more interesting.

Verdict: Ulster

ULSTER – M Lowry; A Sexton, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor (capt), K Treadwell; Matty Rea, Marcus Rea, N Timoney. Reps: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, M Moore, S Carter, G Jones, D Shanahan, A Curtis, B Moxham.

LEINSTER – J O’Brien; J Larmour, G Ringrose (capt), R Henshaw, D Kearney; R Byrne, L McGrath; A Porter, D Sheehan, M Ala’alatoa; R Molony, J Jenkins; R Baird, J van der Flier, J Conan. Reps: R Kelleher, E Byrne, V Abdaladze, J Ryan, W Connors, N McCarthy, J Sexton, C Ngatai

Ulster v Leinster, 7.35, Live RTÉ, BBC NI, Premier Sports


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