Leinster defence coach Kurt McQuilkin insists Ulster are the “screaming-hot favourites” coming into Friday’s sell-out Guinness Pro12 semi-final at the RDS.
As one of the most compelling domestic seasons draws to a close, every ticket for this weekend’s play-off matches in Dublin and Galway, where Connacht host Glasgow Warriors on Saturday, has been snapped up.
After installing an extra 700 seats at the RDS, the capacity of Leinster’s Dublin 4 home has been boosted to 19,100 as the hosts aim to continue their dominance over Ulster in knockout rugby.
In the past five years, Leinster have seen off the men from Ravenhill in the finals of the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup, in addition to beating them in the league semi-finals in 2011 and 2014.
However, Ulster enter this game having scored 18 tries across a four-game winning streak, including a 30-6 beating of Leinster two weeks ago.
McQuilkin, who described his own team’s form as “up and down”, believes the visitors have found harmony in their play. “Ulster after their victory over us a couple of weeks ago would be going in as red-hot favourites. They’re in a good vein of form with four good wins recently, attacking wise scoring some terrific tries across the park. They’ll come into it screaming-hot favourites,” he said.
Naturally, McQuilkin is playing the good host, but while form provides a bridge to the knockout stages, it takes mentally tough individuals to win these types of games and that is a resource where Leinster are well stocked.
As many as 18 players in the current squad are multiple European Cup winners and plenty of the younger players have won two Pro12 titles.
However, Ulster hold a unique advantage over Leinster given the experience held by Les Kiss, their director of rugby, who has worked closely with some of the blue province’s brightest talents during his seven-year spell as Ireland’s defence coach.
But to McQuilkin it just adds an extra layer to the challenge. “It’s up to us to find other ways of getting around defences too. Likewise our defence against their attack, taking away their time and space, so I’m sure it does have a wee bit of influence but you need to find ways, especially in these semi-final knock-out stages to score points,” he said.
During the regular 22-game season, Leinster set a new record in the Pro12 where the conceded just 290 points, but McQuilkin is wary of trending in the wrong direction after the team shipped six tries in their past two run-outs against Ulster and Treviso.
“I didn’t take that [Ulster result] as badly as the Treviso one. Why? Because the Ulster game was a penalty try, there was an intercept on attack which is very hard to defend, and obviously the second try Lukey Fitzgerald was in the sin bin but they still ran a good play to score it,” said McQuilkin.
“The Treviso game, we mentally knocked off in that fourth quarter and that would be what really got under my skin and we’ve had discussions about that since then.”
Despite the province’s stranglehold on Ulster in the games that really matter, Leinster No 8 Jamie Heaslip has an appreciation about how their rivals have evolved their game thanks to an unheralded forward pack.
“The main thing [Ulster’s pack] do is deliver good quality ball to attack off. Ruan Pienaar is one of the best [scrum-halves] in the game in directing the show, and making the right decision nine times out of 10,” said Heaslip.
“Paddy Jackson is playing some really good rugby right now, they’re getting good go-forward ball. If they hit up Stu McCloskey [in midfield], they get good go-forward ball, they just know what they’re at. Their collective strength is very impressive, they just know the way they want to play inside out. Regardless who plays for them, that standard doesn’t drop.”
Cian Healy and Sean O’Brien have been ruled out for Leinster, while Rob Kearney appears doubtful with an ankle injury. Luke Fitzgerald (knee) and Johnny Sexton (quad) look set to be fit for selection.
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