Time for Ulster to show they are real Euro heavyweights
More than bragging rights at stake in derby duel with Leinster
Let me be absolutely honest. It's not often a Pro12 game captures the imagination, but when Leinster and Ulster run out at the RDS later this afternoon, there is the possibility of recreating a special inter-provincial rivalry from times past.
Certainly, on the basis of recent success, Leinster versus Munster has assumed the mantle of 'top derby' on the Irish calendar but, under Mark Anscombe and Brian McLaughlin before him, Ulster have reeled in our top two and, right now, are even slightly ahead.
Add a domestic league table which, as we hit the half-way mark, sees Ulster and Leinster positioned fourth and fifth behind runaway leaders Munster, with just a single point separating the chasing duo. A win for one or the other will see the main challenger to Munster emerge as we enter the new year.
For both provinces it is all to play for but, for Ulster in particular, this four-week period is set to make or break their season.
As assistant coach Jonny Bell put it: "We've got four big weeks ahead of us now with Leinster and Munster in the Pro 12 followed by Montpellier and Leicester in the Heineken Cup. Hitting the ground running against Montpellier is the clear priority but the next two weekends are central to that process."
He is spot-on in terms of priorities but if ever opportunity knocked to lay the groundwork, then Leinster followed by Munster is the way to go. Bear in mind that Ulster did the domestic double over Leinster last season but came up short (having had to concede home advantage for the final) in a cracker at the RDS back in May.
From an Irish perspective, all three provinces are going well but Ulster -- with so many walking wounded set to return and given their stage of collective development -- have all the signs of potential Heineken Cup winners, which I know is a big statement given the presence of Top 14 juggernauts Clermont Auvergne and Toulon, never mind Montpellier, Toulouse, Castres and the rest.
Munster's results so far this season have been outstanding but when push comes to shove I fear for that lack of attacking balance and potency behind the scrum.
Leinster certainly possess that X-factor in abundance but, worryingly for Matt O'Connor, have been blowing hot and cold, not least in the double-header against Northampton.
They, like Ulster, need to send out a signal of intent, following back-to-back poor performances in defeat to Northampton and Edinburgh, although the Murrayfield match should never have been played.
So when fourth meets fifth and blue entertains white in the festive cauldron that will be the RDS, something has got to give.
There is something very special about inter-provincial derbies, irrespective of what heights many of those central to the action have or ever will achieve in the game. The intensity comes with the occasion and the nature of the opposition.
Ulster have Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Tom Court on the mend, while Paddy Wallace is also back fit and firing with Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and, whisper it, Stephen Ferris all rehabilitating in the background.
If Ferris makes it back what a bonus, but in terms of a fast-growing, ever-deepening squad Ulster are in a pretty healthy place.
For Leinster it is as much about getting the top two inches back in sync as any other factor. What we witnessed in Round 3 of the Heineken Cup was as close to rugby perfection from an Irish team on the road as you will ever get.
But today the heat is back on. They are due a return to that level of performance particularly on their home patch before the blue faithful.
They are still in control of their Heineken Cup pool but because of that under-par performance at home to the Saints they travel to Castres next up for a game riddled with danger. Therein lies the challenge and the biggest, if unstated, prize for both provinces this evening.
Win and the French preparation is up and running. Lose and, well we'll leave that to O'Connor and Anscombe. Either way, conditions allowing, we are in for a Christmas cracker.