Although matches against Ulster in recent seasons evoke positive memories for Leinster, defeat this weekend could deepen the sense of crisis ahead of a significant month that will also decide the province’s fate in the Champions Cup.
Coach Matt O’Connor and captain Jamie Heaslip insisted this week the mood inside the camp is positive, with Heaslip in particular shrugging off suggestions there is a sense of frustration in light of recent performances.
After Ulster, Leinster travel to Cardiff in the Pro12 next week before completing their Champions Cup pool against Castres and Wasps. It has the feel of a defining period. Pressed to identify what Leinster have lacked this season, O’Connor suggested his side are close to finding the combinations that made them so exhilarating.
“Confidence is one thing, a lack of combination another,” O’Connor said. “It takes one thing to stick. One of those moves comes off and it changes the nature of the contest, the confidence will be different. That’s the nature of it. We haven’t been as disappointed as some of the other people outside the group in terms of how far off we are.
“The reality is you back your process and you back your standards. You know if you keep delivering on those things, you keep trying to get better week by week, it will come for you. There have been issues in around what we’ve had to pick from, relative to injuries and experience, and all sorts of things. But that doesn’t change the seven-day process of making sure that you’re trying to be better.
“It was disappointing last week because we didn’t deliver on that. By and large, throughout the season, we’ve made significant steps forward relative to who’s been playing and growing all the things that make up a performance.
“You can’t get lost in the distractions of a poor performance. It’s making sure you learn the lessons from those along the way to make sure that, moving forward, you’re that little bit better.”
O’Connor has brought in some of the big guns for the clash, making five changes to the side that lost to Munster. Captain Jamie Heaslip is back at number eight while Jack McGrath, Mike Ross and Devin Toner bolster the pack and Fergus McFadden starts on the wing in place of ~Darragh Fanning.
O’Connor also dismissed suggestions he could lose faith in the players if performances don’t improve.
“It’s not a matter of losing faith. It’s about making sure that you’re accountable for what you deliver to the group and to yourself. They would be the harshest critics there are. The individual wants to be really good. They don’t try to be poor. They don’t try to miss tackles and drop the ball and miss lineouts.
“The reality is everyone is working really hard to deliver a performance at the weekend.”
Meanwhile, Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and Stuart Olding come back into the Ulster starting line-up after last week’s 13-10 win over Connacht.
Bowe is aware Leinster will want to make amends after their St Stephen’s Day setback.
“Leinster will be hurting from last week and will want to come out with a big performance this weekend,” the Ireland winger said. “Leinster against Ulster is always a packed house. It’s one, as players, that is not very hard to get up for.
“We know each other very well. I know every one of their players and vice versa. It’s hard to come up with something new, but at the same time it’s always brilliant to get one over on the guys you know so well. We haven’t had too much luck in doing that over the last couple of years but this is a great chance for us to make a big statement for the rest of the season. There’s huge pressure to do well,” he added.
“You’re coming up against guys who are all fighting to get into the Irish set-up and at the same time we’re fighting for bragging rights. It’s always nice to win an inter-pro.”
LEINSTER: Z Kirchner; F McFadden, L Fitzgerald, G Darcy, D Kearney; I Madigan, I Boss; J McGrath, R Strauss, M Ross; D Toner, M McCarthy; J Conan, S Jennings, J Heaslip (Capt).
Replacements: S Cronin, M Bent, T Furlong, K Douglas, J Murphy, L McGrath, J Gopperth, B Te’o.
ULSTER: P Nelson; T Bowe, D Cave, S Olding, C Gilroy; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (Capt), W Herbst; D Tuohy, F vd Merwe; R Diack, C Ross, R Wilson.
Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, A O’Connor, S Reidy, P Marshall, I Humphreys, L Marshall.
Referee: Marius Mitrea
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