Apologies if the focus on Leinster’s strength in depth is beginning to wear thin but it is a theme that is impossible to ignore given the side Leo Cullen named yesterday.
Cullen made 13 changes to the side that beat Munster in Limerick and then watched the ‘new’ lot eke out another four points against Connacht. Now he has gone and made another 13 switches for Ulster. He’ll expect another win, too.
As always, it’s the back row riches that take the breath away. Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier are all either unavailable or unused here and yet they still look decently equipped.
Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy – the latter off to Ulster to find more game time this summer – will be supported from the blindside by Josh Murphy (22) who will earn just a third senior cap.
“He’s very smart,” said Cullen of a UCD player who, like Jordan Larmour at full-back, is still on an academy contract. “He’s doing medicine. He’s just a good worker. He’s tough and physical, he gives it all.
“He’s a bit of a slower burner in terms of coming through. He’s had his fair share of bangs and bumps but I thought he was really good in the Dragons game here (in November) so he deserves another chance.”
It is a side, as against Connacht, rather light on players with oodles of big-time experience so the pack will lean heavily on Scott Fardy and Devin Toner in the second row with Fergus McFadden acting as the greybeard out back.
Jonathan Sexton, incidentally, starts on the bench for Leinster for the first time in two years: a sign perhaps that this is a bigger interpro than usual given the new Guinness PRO14 conference system and Ulster’s proximity to them in the table. The visitors will likely travel south with a whiff of excitement.
The RDS has been a graveyard for their ambitions but they will be buoyed by the extraordinary win at home to Munster the last day when trailing 17-0 at the break. Some elite Ireland internationals - Rory Best after a blood infection, Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and Andrew Trimble - return to the ranks in a side showing nine changes in all. A win today would be a first in Dublin for 18 years for the province.
Exeter Chiefs, Munster and Connacht have all lain siege to Leinster at times in the last month but four victories and the manner of their last-gasp stand against the westerners on New Year’s Day suggests the hosts will be hard beat again.
“It shows we’ve got a lot of confidence in each other as players,” said Toner.
“If you look at the stats coming out of that Connacht game, it was ridiculous. We’ve seen Josh (van der Flier with 34 tackles) - but then Ross Molony was on 29.
“That last five minutes of the game - putting that huge defensive shift in - shows we have confidence in each other and we want to dig in for each other. It shows where we are as a team.”
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