The swings and roundabouts of the IRFU player welfare programme turn differently for Ulster and Leinster ahead of the second instalment of the festive Guinness PRO12 interprovincial programme.
Ulster had a fair smattering of internationals on board when they accounted for Connacht in Belfast last Friday, while Leinster were shy of a number of big guns when Munster put them to the sword on St Stephen’s Day.
However, it’s looking likely that the shoe will be on the other foot this Saturday as Leinster are set to welcome back their marquee players with Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Luke McGrath, and Seán Cronin likely to be let loose at the RDS.
The prospect of Johnny Sexton returning from a hamstring problem suffered against the All Blacks will further underpin Leinster’s ranking as warm favourites.
On the other hand, the availability of Andrew Trimble after a foot injury will boost Ulster, but Dublin remains an unhappy hunting ground.
And Ulster will be without a couple of internationals, with Ireland captain Rory Best among those due to take a break ahead of what could be a momentous 2017 for the 34-year-old from Co Down.
On the long finger, there’s the Six Nations and a chance to knock England off their pedestal, plus the prospect of leading the British and Irish Lions into battle in New Zealand.
But there is the immediate priority of putting some silverware on a bare sideboard at the Kingspan Stadium.
“We’re certainly not in a position to talk about silverware yet,” said Best, who saw Ulster move up to fourth place with that Connacht win, five points behind Saturday’s opponents but with a match in hand.
“Our ambition is to win something and to do so we have to be in the top four at the end of normal league campaign. For us, pushing there is similar to Europe in that you have to win your home games.
“The more you stay out of the top four the more you have to pick up wins that people don’t expect you to win, say for example in Dublin.
“So, home games are the target, and then we have to scrap for everything we can away from home. This Saturday could be a key to that.”
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