Plot lines aplenty at Ravenhill tonight.
Added to the normal stew of local rivalries and league points are two teams seeking redemption after Heineken Cup reversals and, to top it all, a number of players eager to avail of the opportunity to shine after recent slips down one pecking order or other.
None more so than Craig Gilroy.
It’s less than a month since the Ulster wing lit up the scene with four tries against Fiji and Argentina but his return North brought with it an all too familiar brief on the bench behind Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. Now Bowe is out injured and Gilroy has again been handed his chance.
“Obviously, there is an element of frustration and I was disappointed, but at the same time it’s important to stay positive,” said Gilroy. “I kept my head down and continued working hard to try and get back into the team. I wanted to remain enthusiastic and try and do what’s best for the team. It’s very unfortunate what happened to Tommy and I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone.”
Gilroy isn’t the only man seeking to walk through the door left ajar by the injury to another. With Richardt Strauss nobbled by a knee injury last weekend, Sean Cronin will pack down in Leinster’s front row this evening and he can expect plenty more of the same given his main rival for the No 2 jersey is expected to spend the next four weeks convalescing.
For Cronin, it offers a timely opportunity to prove his worth against a player of Rory Best’s calibre given he is currently in the midst of contract talks with the IRFU and bent on staying put in Dublin despite all the talk that he could well be taking the reverse journey to Mike McCarthy next summer and setting up shop with Connacht for a second spell.
“It was unfortunate,” said the Limerick man of the injury Strauss suffered against Clermont Auvergne last Saturday. “Richardt went down pretty early in the game. It’s difficult to come off the bench [as he did against Clermont] but that’s the way it happened and there are some huge derby games coming up over Christmas and it’s a crucial period to be fighting for places to get into the national squad.
“It’s about putting your best foot forward. We all know how good of a performer Rory is and Ulster are performing particularly well at the moment. They had a tough loss at the weekend but they have the best form in the Rabo so it’ll be hugely difficulty going up to Ravenhill. Playing Rory is always a difficult challenge and I’m sure it’ll be no different this weekend.”
What Cronin and Gilroy both agree on is the extent of the task facing both sides in an inter-provincial clash where Ulster’s form this season and their 13-point buffer on the visitors is counterbalanced by Leinster’s recent dominance in the head-to-head meetings and determination not to fall further behind.
“Obviously, we last played them at Twickenham last May and a lot has changed since then,” said Gilroy.
“It is a derby, it’s Leinster, you don’t have to build up to a game like this. It’s as big a game as you get. Darren Cave was saying we’ve only beaten them once in the last 18 games, so we’re keen to address that. We’re keen to put a marker down.”
Defeat to Northampton — and with it the loss of their unbeaten run this season — has only stoked the fires further but then Leinster have their own demons to conquer having been all but relieved of their European crown by a French side that established themselves as champions-in-waiting at the Aviva Stadium.
“Everyone is fired up to get back to winning ways,” said Cronin. “Ravenhill is a very difficult place to go, they have a very intimidating crowd and they are playing very well at the moment so it’s going to be a huge task to try and get our heads right and get motivated after the game on Saturday. You don’t have too much time to be feeling sorry for yourself.”
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