No team has frustrated Ulster more in modern times than their cousins to the immediate south. This will be the fifth time in six years that the pair meet in a knockout game of rugby in May. Leinster have won all four past meetings.
There is less to choose between the sides now than in those games. Leinster are clearly some way removed from their greatest of days under Joe Schmidt while Ulster have shown signs of progress again in Less Kiss’ first season at the helm.
Leo Cullen had a good chuckle when asked if it was an opportune time to be meeting their provincial rivals so soon after that 30-6 loss at Kinsgpan Stadium. Numerous lessons have been absorbed, apparently, though we will soon see if they know their lines any better.
“Hopefully, it will be a slightly different scoreline. Thirty points to six last week was tough to stomach. There’s definitely areas we can be better at. It’s just important that guys are managing themselves well at the end of a long season.”
Leinster had little trouble with a painfully poor Treviso side on Saturday. Eight tries from Jonathan Sexton, Richardt Strauss (2), Jack McGrath, Isa Nacewa, Jordi Murphy, Noel Reid and Garry Ringrose more than sufficed despite three late consolations for the Italians. There were offloads galore throughout, line breaks too and the only concerns were of the usual variety: injuries. Rob Kearney is considered a doubt for the semi-final with Ulster after damaging an ankle, though Sexton apparently isn’t despite a quad issue. Both could have played on with their one good leg and it wouldn’t have mattered given the disparity between the teams and it raises the question as to why Italy shouldn’t just merge its two franchises into one and see if any improvement was forthcoming. As it is, this loss means Zebre and not Treviso will ‘contest’ the Champions Cup next season.
As for Leinster, their ability to put away teams of Treviso’s ilk has not been in question throughout this up and down season, but that 24-point loss up north rekindled memories of a short Champions Cup campaign in which they were undone by an opponent of the quality rarely met in the PRO12.
That trio of tries from Marco Lazzaroni, Matteo Muccignat and Enrico Bacchin may have been registered in garbage time, but they add to a picture of a fraying defence in recent weeks after that facet of their play had been so impressive for so long.
And it will take more than eight tries against Treviso to put doubts over their attack to bed. “You are always looking for improvements,” said Cullen. “I don’t think we’ll ever be fully happy. But, we’re in a situation where we are at home in the semi-final of the PRO12. We would love to be in the final in Europe next week. But, we’re not. We weren’t even close this year. That is an area we can focus on next year.”
R Kearney; I Nacewa, G Ringrose, B Te’o, D Kearney; J Sexton, E Reddan; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; R Molony, M Kearney; R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip.
N Reid for R Kearney (24); C Marsh for Sexton (48); S Cronin for Strauss and T Furlong for Ross (both 52); D Ryan for Ruddock (54); P Dooley for McGrath (55); H Triggs for Kearney (61); L McGrath for Reddan (69).
J Hayward; L Nitoglia, T Iannone, A Sgarbi, A Esposito; L McLean, E Gori; M Zanusso, O Gega, S Ferrari; M Fuser, F Paulo; F Minto, A Zanni, A Steyn.
E Bacchin for Iannone and M Lazzaroni for Zanni (both HT); A Lucchese for Gori (42); L Bigi for Gega (54); S Manu for Ferrari (60); M Muccignat for Zanusso and A De Marchi for Minto (both 67).
B Whitehouse (WRU).