Happy New Year!!! 2017 was a year of major ups and major downs for the boys in blue but going by the performances from them over the past few months, 2018 looks like it’s going to have a lot of highs for this team!
For the first game of the year, Leinster will take on Ulster at the RDS which will be our third derby match in 11 days in the Pro14. It’s been a grueling schedule for Leinster over the last couple of weeks and it doesn’t get any easier when it comes to taking on another provincial rival at our home ground.
Around this time last year, I was thinking to myself that Leinster could go all the way in both the Pro12 and the Champions Cup, such was the high level of performances that Leinster was pumping out every weekend. However, we all know how the season finished in both competitions and how it left a lot of us scratching our heads with regard to how did the season get away from us!? Well, we’re back in a similar situation again this season, Leinster are riding high in both competitions and it’s clear to see that we’re the team to beat and are deservedly the bookies favourite to win the Champions Cup. Of course, Leinster are generally located towards the top of the table each year, but this season especially, Leinster has been carving their own route to the final in both competitions, commanding the tempo and intensity of each game they’ve played. It’s been great to see Leinster respond so positively to the disappointments of the tail end of last season. More recruits have been promoted into the senior squad which is a huge credit to Cullen and Lancaster, more emphasis on the balance of attack and defense has been worked on, and a very clear hunger and drive has been cultivated throughout the squad. The makeup of the teams that tog out each week has changed quite a lot over the last few months, sometimes 12-18 changes per week. Typically when so many different teams are deployed week in and week out, we would expect some rustiness and lack of cohesion to creep into the performances. This has just not been the case this season, the team performances appear to be improving each week and it’s down to the trust and confidence that Cullen & Co has put into the squad knowing that they are all working extremely well together as a unit. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing in interviews and reading on Twitter some players referring to their team mates as “brothers”. I didn’t hear this reference last season nor did I hear them explain how important winning trophies is as I’m hearing from the squad lately. There is something very special happening at Leinster this season and it’s very evident in how the players are gelling so well together, and developing very strong bonds on and off the field. This is the difference between this season and last season. The hunger for success is back in this squad, the same hunger that we experienced from the 2010-2013 squads. It’s what we have been waiting to see over the last few seasons and long may it continue!
All that being said, there is something about this fixture which is making me nervous. Leinster has been performing so well just like last year but what we need to see differently this season is consistency. Sometimes, our beloved team has a habit of beating some really big teams and then going out and losing a game that they would have been expected to win. This hasn’t necessarily happened this season but I’m sure we’re all thinking it, “will there be a deja vu” moment this season. The scars haven’t fully healed for me following last season’s disaster ending, but this game may help immeasurably with the healing process. I think Ulster will be very up for this game, especially after their amazing 17 nil down comeback against Munster last weekend. I feel that if Leinster lose this game, although there’s huge evidence of improvement this season, it will show that there is still a mental frailty in the side when it comes to backing up and improving on performances on a weekly basis. If we win this one, the very last doubt in my mind will be gone and I’ll be dreaming of four stars for the rest of the season!!
Both sides have selected a strong team for this fixture, although as we’ve become accustomed to over the past month or two, Leinster has made more changes to the 23 man squad but are still capable of putting out a very strong group of players! Below is the team Leo Cullen has selected:
15. Jordan Larmour (11)
14. Fergus McFadden (161)
13. Garry Ringrose (43)
12. Robbie Henshaw (19)
11. Barry Daly (17)
10. Ross Byrne (38)
9. Jamison Gibson-Park (41)
1. Jack McGrath (122) CAPTAIN
2. James Tracy (54)
3. Tadhg Furlong (75)
4. Devin Toner (208)
5. Scott Fardy (11)
6. Josh Murphy (2)
7. Jordi Murphy (96)
8. Jack Conan (64)
16. Seán Cronin (142)
17. Ed Byrne (16)
18. Andrew Porter (19)
19. Mick Kearney (28)
20. Max Deegan (10)
21. Nick McCarthy (16)
22. Johnny Sexton (142)
23. Noel Reid (92)
There are 15 changes to the team that defeated Connacht at the RDS 4 days ago! There are some great returnees to the side including Larmour, Henshaw, Furlong, Bryne, Jordi Murphy and Conan. These players will give the team an extra bite and will want to put out a great performance in order to secure their places in the next round of the Champions Cup in 9 days time.
Jack McGrath will captain the side for the first time at the RDS while last week’s captain, Johnny Sexton, has been placed on the bench. Ross Byrne who has been immaculate over his past two games in particular will pull the strings at 10. His development has been clear for all to see this season, he’s becoming a highly reliable deputy to Sexton and you can see his confidence growing with each game. He’s had a 100% record off the tee in his last two games (9 from 9) and he’s assisted in multiple tries thanks to his pin point accurate cross-field kicks. Even with Joey Carbery set to make his return to action soon following an injury layoff, it’s hard to see how Byrne will lose his place on future team sheets. We could well see Carbery taking the 15 or 22 jersey for the rest of the season (which he’s said to be more than happy with).
Josh Murphy will earn his 3rd cap of the season in the No.6 jersey alongside a very strong and well experienced 1-8 pack.
On the bench, there are a few major threats too in Sean Cronin, Andrew Porter, Max Deegan, Johnny Sexton and Noel Reid in particular. All of these lads could easily have been included in the starting lineup with no qualms from me, another sign of Leinster’s immense squad depth. Max Deegan has been a revelation for Leinster, he’s consistently impressive each time he takes to the field, and has bagged himself two tries in his last two appearances. Like James Ryan, he’s a player that has shot up from the academy and made his presence known straight away. He could potentially follow James Ryan in getting an Irish cap soon if he keeps it up.
Ulster has selected as strong a team as they have available. They have strength and experience in abundance throughout their selection. It will be interesting to see how they kick on after their incredible victory over Munster last week. Their try scoring hero Rob Lyttle has been left off the team sheet due to injury and John Cooney has been placed on the bench. Cooney has been a key factor in Ulster’s success this season and he will undoubtedly play a big part in their ambition to topple Leinster at home tomorrow.
Where the game will be won.
I think this will be a game where domination upfront will be key to victory. The forwards on both sides will control this match and I feel that scrums and line-outs will be of utmost importance, more so than our last two games. I expect the game plans for both sides to consist of attacking moves and plays born from powerful mauls and scrums. With the forwards that both teams have, it would be foolish not to create a game plan around these areas. Winning the forwards battle will be key and it’s only from this area that I see both sets of backs being unleashed.
Both sides are relatively close together in the Pro14 table, Leinster being ahead by 6 points at the moment. So, I would assume that both coaches will be aware that a win for either side will have massive repercussions on their ambitions in this competition. A win for Ulster will bring them within a few points of overtaking the boys in blue. A win for Leinster will put a lot of daylight between them on the Conference B table, while also helping them to close the gap between them and Scarlets in first place. As a result, both sets of players will need to show their desire and ambition in this competition because although there is a fair way to go yet in the regular fixtures, this one will be crucial in deciding where each side may end up come the end of April.
You could see last week that Ulster are a team that will never give up. They realised that that failure was not an option and despite being down 17 nil going into the second half, they kept chipping away at Munster’s defense and were rewarded with 4 tries and a bonus point victory when all signs pointed towards a Munster win. Leinster will need to be wary of this as they are known for getting on the scoreboard early and create a bit of daylight, only to let the opposition back into the game. This was most evident in Leinster’s game against Munster on St. Stephen’s day where we built a 17 point lead which was almost nullified in the second half when the red army scored two tries to make it a nail biter of a finish. Desire and hunger will be highly important for Leinster if they are to come out of this game with a win.
Judging by Leinster’s incredible form of late, I don’t believe that there are many teams who can live with the intensity and overall power that they bring to their game. Ulster are simply not at the same level as the boys in blue and if Leinster turn up with the same desire and hunger for victory as we’ve been experiencing throughout this season so far, it’s difficult to see how Ulster compete. I believe the home side will win a hard fought battle, and could potentially win well on the scoreboard. This band of blue warriors, the “brothers” in arms, look far too cohesive to let their form slip, especially at home in front of the Leinster faithful who have been packing out the stands all season. My cheeky prediction is that Conan will score first and from there, we won’t lose the lead. I expect a great start to 2018 for Leinster and another masterclass from a squad that is setting the benchmark in the league.
Leinster 32 – Ulster 15