There is plenty at stake for Leinster and Ulster as they prepare to face-off in a mouth-watering inter-provincial derby at the RDS Arena in Round 13 of the Guinness PRO14.
Reigning champions Leinster were beaten by bitter rivals Munster at Thomond Park last time out, while Ulster did not fare much better as they lost to Connacht at the Sportsground.
With the Guinness PRO14 set to take another brief hiatus for Champions Cup and Challenge Cup action, both sides will be desperate to claim bragging rights in Dublin on Saturday.
What’s at stake?
Coming into the last of this series of inter-provincial derbies, Leinster and Ulster are both looking to return to winning ways after suffering defeats in Round 12 of the Guinness PRO14.
Indiscipline cost Leo Cullen’s Leinster side dearly against Munster as they lost 26-17 after James Lowe was sent off and Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong were both sin-binned.
It was only Leinster’s second defeat of the 2018/19 campaign and they remain 16 points clear of Ulster in Conference B after Dan McFarland’s men also slipped up against Connacht.
The defeat extended Ulster’s three-year winless streak in away games against fellow Irish provinces – a record they will be hoping to end when they take on Leinster in Dublin.
Team news (Leinster):
Rob Kearney has returned from injury and will lead Leinster out against Ulster in front of a capacity crowd, with Adam Byrne and Barry Daly coming in on the right and left wings.
Elsewhere, Noel Reid is joined by Conor O’Brien in the centre with Jamison Gibson-Park and Ciarán Frawley forming the half-back pairing for their opening game of the new year.
There is a welcome return in the pack for British & Irish Lion Jack McGrath, who has recovered from a hip injury to take his place in the front row alongside Sean Cronin and Andrew Porter.
Ross Molony and Mick Kearney start in the second row with Josh Murphy, Scott Penny and Max Deegan, while 21-year-old Oisín Dowling could make his debut from the bench.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 4, 2019
Team news (Ulster):
Ulster have made 11 changes to their starting XV for the trip to Leinster, with Matthew Dalton, Angus Kernohan, James Hume and Michael Lowry coming into the side from the academy.
Rob Lyttle will also make his return from a lengthy spell on the sidelines to start on the right wing, while Dave Cave will be paired together with Hume in midfield.
Dave Shanahan and Johnny McPhillips are set to combine in the half-back positions and Greg Jones will make his first start of the season in the back row alongside Sean Reidy and Nick Timoney.
Alan O’Connor has recovered from an injury sustained Cardiff Blues and will partner Dalton, with Wiehahn Herbst will pack down in the front row for the first time since September with hooker Adam McBurney and loosehead prop Kyle McCall.
Leinster’s Sean Cronin said: “When you lose, it’s never a good result so we’re pretty disappointed with that.
“We had a good review, picked apart some of the things that we needed to get better at going into another big Inter-pro this weekend.
“If you can look back to the Connacht and Munster games – they’re all hotly contested games. There’s a bit of edge, a bit of spice there, it’s going to be hotly contested again at the weekend.”
Here is your Ulster team to play @leinsterrugby tomorrow!
— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) January 4, 2019
Ulster defence coach Jared Payne said: “You just have to go down and get into them. Go down and don’t cross the line in terms of not doing anything silly.
“You have to front up physically and look forward to the challenge. There was a pretty good buzz amongst the guys in training in particular.
“They are keen and excited. It’s a great chance isn’t it? People don’t expect much from the group. There’s no better opportunity to play without fear and it’s a pretty good place to be.”
Key battle – Rob Kearney v Michael Lowry
While the game is likely to be decided up front, there is a fascinating battle between youth and experience at full-back as Ulster’s Michael Lowry tests himself against Rob Kearney.
Kearney is back from injury to captain the hosts and the Ireland international will be keen to stretch his legs against his opposition number, who is more than ten years his junior.
Lowry has shown plenty of potential since making the step up from the academy and his deceptive pace and great agility could pose problems for Kearney and Leinster’s defence.
Key stat: Ulster have not won at the RDS since a 22-18 victory in March 2013 when current Ulster defence coach Jared Payne was yellow-carded in injury time.
Did you know? Leinster defeated Ulster 38-7 in Dublin in this fixture in January last year to complete a provincial clean-sweep over the festive period.
Leinster: Rob Kearney (c), Adam Byrne, Conor O’Brien, Noel Reid, Barry Daly, Ciarán Frawley, Jamison Gibson-Park, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Ross Molony, Mick Kearney, Josh Murphy, Scott Penny, Max Deegan
Replacements: James Tracy, Ed Byrne, Michael Bent, Oisín Dowling, Caelan Doris, Hugh O’Sullivan, Ross Byrne, Jimmy O’Brien
Ulster: Michael Lowry, Rob Lyttle, Darren Cave, James Hume, Angus Kernohan, Johnny McPhillips, Dave Shanahan, Kyle McCall, Adam McBurney, Wiehahn Herbst, Matt Dalton, Alan O’Connor (c), Greg Jones, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney
Replacements: John Andrew, Andrew Warwick, Tom O’Toole, Caleb Montgomery, Clive Ross, Jonny Stewart, Bruce Houston, Peter Nelson
TV: Live on Eir Sport 1, Premier Sports 2 and SuperSport 1, kick off at 5.15pm
Referee: Andrew Brace (IRFU)
Assistant referees: George Clancy (IRFU), Kieran Barry (IRFU)
TMO: Olly Hodges (IRFU)
Four first-half tries, including two for Sean Cronin, and a staunch second-half defensive display ensured Leinster took maximum points with a 40-7 Guinness PRO14 win over Ulster.
Both teams came into their 155th meeting looking to bounce back from inter-pro defeats but it will be Leo Cullen’s men who come out of the clash smiling.
Dan McFarland made 11 changes to his Ulster side that lost to Connacht last week, opting to give youth a chance.
But hooker Cronin bagged two early tries to put Leinster in control and any chance of an Ulster fightback was over before it had begun after they conceded just 60 seconds after scoring their only points of the match.
Leinster put their opponents under pressure right from the kick-off and had their first try before a much-changed Ulster side had a hand on the ball.
After 26 phases, Cronin made a break for the line from around five metres out to score his 34th try for the reigning PRO14 champions.
Ciaran Frawley, who came into the game with a 100% record from the tee, made it 7-0 with seven minutes on the clock.
Ulster barely had time to regroup before Cronin scored again, this time making the most of some fantastic offloading to bulldoze over the whitewash and Frawley maintained his perfect record to make it 14-0 after 14 minutes.
The Ulstermen hit back to halve the Leinster lead courtesy of an Adam McBurney try off the back of a maul and an impressive Johnny McPhillips conversion from out wide.
Leinster had a third try straight from the kick-off though, Conor O’Brien dancing through the tackles brilliantly to dot down only for Frawley to put his simplest kick of the match wide.
The bonus point was then secured just before half-time as Andrew Porter scored a pick and go and Frawley found his range once more to put Leinster up 26-7.
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) January 5, 2019
Ulster lost Kyle McCall to what looked like a nasty injury and things got worse when Jamison Gibson-Park scored Leinster’s fifth try.
Frawley improved his impressive kicking record with a successful conversion and Leinster were home and dry.
Max Deegan made a last-minute stretch for the line to score a sixth Leinster try but was stopped short. It didn’t matter in the end as a penalty try was awarded from the resulting scrum as the clock ticked into the red.