Leinster up for a derby battle as Ulster march south

Strange how history repeats itself.

Or threatens to.

It was Ulster who inflicted a third defeat in three weeks on Leinster this very month last year. Now Mark Anscombe’s side have the opportunity to repeat that dose when the provinces clash at the RDS in the RaboDirect Pro12 this evening.

Leinster players spoke prior to last week’s loss in Murrayfield about the rarity with which they have lost two games on the spin in recent times, so their determination to avoid that fate and clock up an hat-trick must be obvious.

“I think we’ve got to get better parity at setpiece,” said head coach Matt O’Connor on the back of losses to Northampton and Edinburgh.

“We’ve got to defend better. We’ve got to look after the ball. They are probably the three biggest things off the last couple of weeks where we’ve let ourselves down.

“You can’t be turning the ball over with handling errors and inefficient stuff at the breakdown against very good sides. The boys understand that. They’re not real happy with what they have delivered individually and collectively over the last couple of weeks.”

As ever with games during this window, both Irish sides will be compromised by the IRFU’s player protection regulations, not to mention the usual quota of injuries, and Leinster show six changes from their last outing to nine for the visitors.

O’Connor has been able to draft in Sean O’Brien, Dave Kearney and Mike McCarthy after their obligations last week in international camp but the likes of Brian O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip will be marked absent.

Ulster’s alterations have left them fielding a back line where six of the seven are Ireland internationals but they look lighter up front with men such as Rory Best, Johann Muller and Nick Williams unavailable.

They go to Dublin on the back of a five-game winning streak but one made somewhat less notable for the fact that two of those ties were back-to-back Heineken wins over Treviso while they were far from good against Zebre last week.

“Yeah, they weren’t,” said O’Connor. “But, Zebre are better, I think, than people give them credit for at the moment. They’ve certainly developed a resolve that they haven’t had in other seasons.

“They’ve brought in a couple of players that have given them a bit of steel. They’re not easy-beats. I wouldn’t read too much into that performance. (Ulster) will come to try and get the result. We’ve got to make sure we’re really good.”

With Jimmy Gopperth returned to 10 in favour of Ian Madigan for the first time in a month, the sell-out crowd will be denied the latest tete-a-tete between the Leinster out-half and Paddy Jackson ahead of the 2014 Six Nations.

That said, Ulster probably have the greater ammunition off the bench with Tom Court, Ruan Pienaar and Jared Payne held in reserve but it should still make for a fascinating contest, given recent engagements.

Ulster won both regular-season contests last term but Leinster prevailed in the Pro12 final, just as they did in the European decider a year before. Still, O’Connor believes today’s opponents are better than they were.

“They’ve probably the same strengths. They’re probably a little bit better in relation to understanding what they want to achieve as a team and getting the best out of the Ruan Pienaars and the other special individuals they’ve got in their group.

“They’re all contributing pretty well and they’ve shown in Europe and in the Rabo they’re a very tough team to break down. We’re going to have to make sure we take our chances and are very, very clinical.”

Leinster, but not by much.

Leinster: Z Kirchner; D Kearney, B Macken, N Reid; L Fitzgerald; J Gopperth, I Boss; M Bent, A Dundon, M Moore; L Cullen, M McCarthy; R Ruddock, S O’Brien, J Murphy. Ulster: R Andrew; A Trimble, D Cave, L Marshall, C Gilroy; P Jackson, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, D Fitzpatrick; L Stevenson, D Tuohy; R Diack, S Doyle, R Wilson. Referee: J Lacey (IRFU).


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