Saturday, March 12, 2022

Preview : Ulster v Leinster



Both are in the top 2, both have 6 matches left, both have a South African trip to make, Leinster have four more match points in the bag yet Ulster currently hold the bragging rights after pouncing on us at the RDS in November.

If you wanted you could dwell on how it's a pity these two aren't playing each other with full teams, OR you could point out that had they probably wouldn't have anyway had they met in round 9 like originally planned, as well as accepting this is hands down the biggest match of the URC so far.

The plan was for me to head north for this one but the stars didn't align, which is an extra shame because with the Kingspan opening early to screen the Six Nations, I have to assume the bars would open too which would give the atmosphere at kickoff time that extra bit of spice, as if it would need it.

[we now pause for the obligatory acknowledgement that this is in fact the oldest Irish rugby fixture]

One thing's is for sure, while many have complained about many of Leinster's opponents in the league so far this season, our schedule from here on in is anything but easy and while every match point will be vital in our quest for a decent playoff position, the challenge is exactly what we were hoping for when the latest incarnation of the competition came into being.

There's a lot to be said about this Leinster matchday 23 so let's get down to it.

BACKS

When the injury update didn't completely rule out Harry Byrne after he was withdrawn early in Treviso, I was hopeful because the however many players we had away with the test squad, one thing we really wanted going to Belfast was a settled centre pairing and he and Jamie Osborne had been on a decent run together.

Alas he didn't make it which means we have to go with Jamie at 12 and Rory O'Loughlin at 13. Now it's not like they can't do a job for us, but even with James Hume remaining with the Irish squad, our lads will be up against a really top pair in McCloskey and Moore so we'll need all the cohesion we can get.

While I mention Locky I'll take the opportunity to wish all the players who were announced to be leaving Leinster at the end of the season all the best at their future clubs, and Adam Byrne is another one involved here as he forms a very strong back three with the O'Briens Jimmy and Tommy...the former will add some extra footballing options against what should be a stubborn D while the latter has been good at the last ditch tackles of late.

Obviously the McGrath/Byrne combo at halfback will be central to most of what we do with the ball and both have done well in our recent run of form.

FORWARDS

Joe McCarthy impressed me most last week and a similar outing here will be badly needed, and as for his fellow lock Ross Molony, well we're taking solid performances by him for granted at this stage. Another big day at the lineout will keep us in the hunt although the only two that went awry last week were thrown by Tracy who starts here.

Much like our centres, our back row have a really powerful combination opposite them so while Scott Penny and Max Deegan tend to score tries for fun in this league, I reckon they'll be called upon for more grunt work around the breakdown on Saturday. But along with Rhys Ruddock I say they can definitely be a match for the Timoneys and Vermeulens.

BENCH

Whether out of necessity or by design, the 6/2 split on the bench looks for smart in what should be a very physical battle. Obviously there's a risk involved when it comes to injuries among the backs, but it is a worthwhile one as we can get that little bit out of our starters knowing there's a decent cavalry lying in wait.

Martin Moloney is another who has done well in his few appearances so far and Dan Leavy needs no introduction, so with a front row that if anything might be a shade of an improvement we could actually have an edge in the closing stages...the challenge is to still be in the contest at that point!

OPPOSITION

During the week on the podcast I spoke to Ulster fan Ian Frizzell and while I made it sound like I was being tongue in cheek when I suggested Eddie Jones might say the Ulstermen were favourites, I was also being serious and Ian did agree. They definitely got the better of the returnees from Ireland camp with Lowry, Balacoune and Timoney all well capable of being match winners.

But it's about more than just individuals with this year's Ulster team, no matter what the personnel they've done really well as a team and will no doubt be difficult to break down. Their bench has a few aces up its sleeve as well although it's more in the backs with Messrs Cooney and Madigan more than capable of turning things around in the closing stages. It really does look like it will all boil down to how the irresistible force of their back line manages against the immovable object of our defending and I for one can't wait.

PREDICTION

Like I said in my England v Ireland preview, my Whatsapp comment of "I reckon we can definitely take them in the last half hour, the trick is to still be in it at that stage. Be ready for a kitchen sink heading in our direction from kickoff" could apply to both matches. And that sink thing really applies for this match as I reckon Ulster will be extra keen to build up a lead just as they did at the RDS.

The bookies spread was interesting - they had a 1 point margin as the teams were being announced Friday lunchtime but when the two sides stacked up against each other it moved out to 4, which is about where I have it, but if Leinster can maintain a strong tackling cordon in the first half an hour and frustrate them, we could definitely flip those odds around.

As always in tight matches like this, we can only hope the referee isn't a factor but it is true that discipline on the night will be crucial to both sides. Absolutely everything about this points to a classic, fingers crossed it lives up to it.

GET INVOLVED IN THE DISCUSSION

I will of course be doing my usual harping on the Twitter machine throughout all of the rugby on Saturday evening, and when that full time whistle blows be sure to pop over to our Facebook page and let us know what you think. JLP

Ulster : 15 Mike Lowry, 14 Robert Baloucoune, 13 Stewart Moore, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Billy Burns, 9  Nathan Doak; 
1 Andrew Warwick, 2 John Andrew, 3 Marty Moore, 4 Alan O’Connor (Capt.), 5 Sam Carter, 6 Marcus Rea, 7 Nick Timoney, 8 Duane Vermeulen.
Replacements: 16 Tom Stewart, 17 Eric O’Sullivan, 18 Gareth Milasinovich, 19 Mick Kearney, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 John Cooney, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Ben Moxham.

United Rugby Championship 2021/22 - Round 9*
Saturday, March 12, 2022
KO 7:35pm
Kingspan Stadium

Referee: Frank Murphy (IRFU)
AR 1: Eoghan Cross (IRFU) 
AR 2: Oisin Quinn (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)

Live on: Premier Sports, TG4 & URC TV.

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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019