Two Irish rivals meet in a key Conference B clash in Belfast on Saturday night as Ulster host in-form Leinster in an eagerly-awaited match-up.
What’s at stake?: Both sides have made a typically strong start to the Guinness PRO14 season, with Ulster second and Leinster just one place behind – suggesting they will both be in the mix come the end of the campaign.
Both sides have lost just one game each and are level on points, two behind conference leaders Scarlets.
The last eight meetings between the two teams have been won by the home side, illustrating how tight this match is likely to be and, with bragging rights on the line, a fierce match can be expected.
Team news (Ulster): Rory Best will become just the fourth player in Ulster history to reach 200 caps after being named in the starting XV against rivals Leinster.
The hooker makes his first start of the season and is joined by Callum Black and Rodney Ah You in the front row.
Elsewhere, Aaron Cairns makes his Ulster debut at scrum-half while his fellow No. 9 Jonny Stewart is also set for his first senior appearance from the bench.
Team news (Leinster): British & Irish Lions duo Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien return for Leinster as their injury woes begin to subside.
Kearney starts at full-back as part of an exciting back three which also includes Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney.
Centre Rory O’Loughlin is also back after a spell on the sidelines, while hooker James Tracy wins his 50th cap.
Talking points: Both sides are chasing a second successive derby victory after Leinster beat Munster 23-17 last time out, while Ulster squeezed past Connacht 16-8.
Leinster are half-way through a crucial period of fixtures, with a trip to high-flying Glasgow Warriors to come in Round 8 – while Ulster jet off to South Africa to face the Southern Kings.
Conference B is currently split in two, with Scarlets, Ulster and Leinster clear at the top and already looking good for the knock-out stages.
Key Battle: Tommy Bowe v Dave Kearney
Two Ireland internationals will go head to head at the Kingspan and the winner of this battle could be decisive to the outcome of the match.
Tommy Bowe and Dave Kearney have registered just one Guinness PRO14 try between them so far but they remain two of the most dangerous wingers in the league.
They have routinely proven to be big-game players and, in a derby under the lights, it does not come much bigger than this.
Key Stat: Leinster’s most recent success in Belfast was a 22-20 victory back in May 2014.
Did you know?: Ulster have not been defeated at Kingspan Stadium in the Guinness PRO14 since a 14-15 reversal to Munster exactly a year ago.
Ulster: C Piatau; T Bowe, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; C Lealiifano, A Cairns; C Black, R Best, R Ah You, A O’Connor, I Henderson (c), S Reidy, C Henry, J Deysel.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, R Diack, J Stewart, P Nelson, L Ludik.
Leinster: R Kearney; A Byrne, R O’Loughlin, N Reid, D Kearney; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; J McGrath, J Tracy, T Furlong, D Toner, J Ryan, D Leavy, J Murphy, S O’Brien (c).
Replacements: R Strauss, C Healy, A Porter, R Molony, J Conan, L McGrath, C Marsh, J Larmour.
TV: Sky Sports & BBC Sport NI (KO: 6.30pm)
Match officials – Referee: Jon Lacey (IRFU), AR1: Craig Evans (WRU), AR2: Leo Colgan (WRU), TMO: Olly Hodges (IRRU)
Leinster earned derby-day bragging rights with a hard-fought win away at Ulster to leapfrog them into second place in Conference B.
Tries from Jordan Larmour and Luke McGrath proved crucial for the visitors, who continue to build momentum following a superb European break and they will be full of confidence ahead of Friday night’s crucial trip to Glasgow Warriors.
Ulster fall to their second defeat in three matches following a surprise loss to Zebre last month, although they can take heart from the battling display.
Aaron Cairns impressed on his debut at scrum half, while hooker Rory Best made his first start of the season to bolster Ulster’s pack.
However, Leinster hit the front after just seven minutes when Larmour scampered down the wing to score a memorable try.
Ulster increased the pressure, dominating territory and possession but Leinster’s defence – marshalled by the superb Devin Toner – kept them at bay.
A pair of Ross Byrne penalties put Leinster ahead by three points at the break with Australian Christian Lealiifano kicking one for the home side.
And Ulster sensed a change in the wind 15 minutes into the second half when Dave Kearney was yellow carded for a deliberate knock on.
However, Leinster struck a fatal blow to Ulster’s chances by extending their lead beyond a single score with a crucial try.
An Ulster knock-on was capitalised on and Luke McGrath crossed just three minutes after Kearney’s yellow with a dart in the corner.
Ulster upped the tempo, pinning Leinster back inside their own half as they searched for a way back into the game.
But it was again Leinster that almost scored when Jordi Murphy latched onto the end of an overthrown line-out ten metres out.
Ulster’s charge fizzled out in the final ten minutes and Leinster finished things off as McGrath crashed over for his second of the match.
That secured the win, the first for an away side in this fixture in nine attempts and the first for the Dublin-side in Belfast since 2014.
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and can be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie
27 Oct 2017
27 Oct 2017