Low-key derby as stars kept for big stage

Low-key derby as stars kept for big stage
Leinster’s Fergus McFadden celebrates on his way to scoring a try against Ulster in round 13 of the PRO14. Picture: Ramsey Cardy

The promotional posters for this game pitted Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale against Jamison Gibson-Park and Adam Byrne.

While they aimed, relatively, low with the Leinster pair, in the end none of the quartet will be on view in Kingspan Stadium this evening, with both clubs fixated on much larger prey in the coming fortnight.

For Leinster, it’s a Champions Cup final and with next weekend off due to them already having a place in the PRO14 playoff semi-final, this game offers a chance to give Leo Cullen’s frontline players a full three weeks without a match between the semi-final win over Toulouse and the final against Saracens in Newcastle.

For Ulster, a quarter-final place has already been achieved, and they cannot be overtaken by conference rivals Benetton or Scarlets, so Dan McFarland has likewise taken this opportunity to rest some of his biggest names.

Of those playing this evening, only Fergus McFadden, Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath, Michael Bent and Max Deegan are likely to come into Cullen’s thinking before the Saracens showdown, while the head coach will be hopeful No 10 Ross Byrne comes through the game unscathed.

Oisín Dowling will make his first senior start for the province in the second row, while Ireland U20 player Ryan Baird, part of this year’s U20 Six Nations grand slam campaign, will become the 57th player used by Leinster this season if he makes his debut off the bench.

Jimmy O’Brien will make his seventh appearance at full back, with Scott Penny hoping to make a sixth appearance off the bench in the competitive backrow.

With Andrew Porter not risked today, Michael Bent makes his 12th start of the season at tighthead, just two days after his 33rd birthday.

He came off the bench in the semi-final win over Toulouse, his first European involvement this season, and the four-times capped player is hopeful he can make his second in St James’ Park next month.

Bent played just 36 minutes in last season’s pool stages and did not feature in the matchday 23 in Bilbao when the province lifted the European Cup, leaving him with mixed feelings over the club’s success.

“Do I count myself as a European champion? Probably not,” he said. “Not until I am actually a part of the team that has won the Championship. I think any player would agree unless you are out there and you do win it as part of the team it is hard to consider yourself a champion...

Obviously I would consider myself a big part of the campaign, there was three games that I played there and working hard in training and preparing guys for games.

“I’ve always been involved, last year if I wasn’t playing I was coming across as injury cover and that. I’ve always been a part of the unit so...I am there, I am part of it.”

Games like this evening offer a chance to remain sharp and to show Cullen that Bent will be ready if he has to call on him in Newcastle.

“Anything can happen during the week and just like that you can be in there,” he said. “It’s important not to let standards slip, keep fitness and strength up and all those things because before you know it you could be in there.”

“You have to be ready to step in for a big game like a semi-final. As a squad we are all training together and we know what the focus is, we know what their strengths are. That’s the key, if you’re not involved you have to be as ready as the guys who are involved. Anything can happen during the week. And just like that you can be in there. It’s important not to let standards slip, keep fitness and strength up and all those things because before you know it you could be in there.”

It’s bound to get frustrating, at times, that competition with Porter and Tadhg Furlong.

“They’re both very talented guys and have come through. At various points I would have pieces of frustration when they were picked ahead of me. Other than that I’m always trying to get to the best level I can be as they would be trying to do themselves. That’s always got to be my focus, identifying the things I can be better at. I obviously have my strengths but there are also things I can get better at like any other player.

It’s about chatting to coaches and identifying those things and constantly trying to improve.

Looking forward to the Saracens final, he saw echoes of Ireland v England in Sarries’ semi-final defeat of Munster.

“England won the battle up front and when you are getting those metres it make the work for the backs a bit easier and they can manipulate the defence a bit easier and score tries.

I think the battle up front is where it starts and whoever wins that is going to have a good chance to win the game.”

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