Personal point-scoring on the Kingspan agenda

The interpros may have lost some of their lustre with the need to rotate and rest some of the big names in the approach to matters of more import, but a game like Ulster v Leinster will always come loaded with subplots.
Personal point-scoring on the Kingspan agenda

With Joe Schmidt naming his extended squad for the November internationals two days ago, there will be no shortage of players willing to prove the Ireland coach right or wrong. In some cases, overshadowing clubmates will be every bit as motivating as outdoing opponents.

Take Tommy Bowe, for one. Still on a central IRFU contract, the veteran wing didn’t make Schmidt’s inner circle again this time but Jacob Stockdale did and he will hug the opposite touchline today for Ulster.

And that’s before the Monaghan man even looks across the way at Dave Kearney and Adam Byrne, both of whom are booked into Carton House in the weeks to come. It’s the sort of fraternal rivalry that will extend to the coaches’ boxes.

John Fogarty is forwards coach at Leinster these days. It’s a role that Jono Gibbes, now head coach with Ulster, once held with distinction and Fogarty should know because he played under the Kiwi in Dublin for two seasons before retiring.

Michael Cheika may be the man who turned Leinster around on and off the field but Gibbes was integral to the transformation thanks to his work in developing a pack that combined aggressiveness with solid set-pieces and no little skill.

Three Heineken Cups stand as proof of that.

His task now is to engineer something similar in Belfast with an Ulster side that, like the Leinster of old, can boast a surfeit of attractive backs but one that has all too often been let down by its inability to dominate opponents up front.

In situ at the Kingspan - alongside Director of Rugby Les Kiss - since his arrival from Clermont Auvergne in the summer, Gibbes knows by now what exactly he is and isn’t dealing with after some good results and the odd bad.

A surprise loss away to Zebre could be dismissed as an aberration but the manner of their heavy defeat in La Rochelle last Sunday left no-one in any doubt as to the extent of the job facing the likeable New Zealander up north.

“La Rochelle was tough and they will be annoyed coming home,” said Fogarty. “They were dealing with a juggernaut pack. It was a tough ask. We came undone last year going over to Montpellier to take on a big pack.

“(Ulster) have been excellent in their opening six (PRO14) games. They have had good results. Technically, you can see they are sharp in what they’re doing. Their drills are really, really good. Scrum, lineout and maul, they are really tight and really good.

“Jono brings that level of excellence to what he does. They will be really, really up for it, regardless of the results we’ve had or they’ve had. A lot of that goes out the window when you play a game against the neighbouring province. It is going to be very difficult.”

Moreso for Ulster, maybe.

Leinster have been arguably the most impressive side in the Champions Cup over the course of the opening two rounds and the manner in which their pack set the agenda against Glasgow in Scotstoun last weekend should be a shot across Ulster’s bows.

Leo Cullen’s side continues to mix and match players but such is their depth that the tune remains the same. Only he could make a dozen changes in a week and still present a daunting first XV.

Every line of the pitch has changed this week. No Robbie Sexton, no Robbie Henshaw, no Joey Carbery. Same in the pack. No Cian Healy or Scott Fardy. An entirely new back row. Most notable among the incomers? Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien who return from injuries.

Ulster have nipped at half their side from the loss in France, Rory Best making a first start this season in what will be his 200th appearance for his province, while Jean Deysel starts at No.8 having missed last week’s defeat through injury.

Both are major figures but Leinster look more accomplished in most departments, especially up front.

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