Iain Henderson returns to action earlier than expected as Dan McFarland makes a couple of big selection calls for Ulster’s PRO14 showdown against Leinster at Aviva Stadium.
Alby Mathewson gets the nod at scrum half in what McFarland has described as the ‘toughest call of his career’ with PRO14 team of the season, John Cooney dropping to the bench. Sean Reidy starts ahead of Jordi Murphy with the latter included on the bench with Nick Timoney in what is a 6-2 split in favour of the forwards.
Eric O’Sullivan and Tom O’Toole get the nod ahead of Lions international Jack McGrath and Irish international Marty Moore. Aged just 24 and 21, this is a massive vote in confidence, plus it will stand Ulster in good stead with the international players coming off the bench with 20 minutes to go. Rob Herring continues at hooker.
Henderson makes a recovery that Lazarus would have been proud of after it was expected he would be out for the rest of this season at the very least. Henderson captains the side with Alan O’Connor also in the second row. Matthew Rea put in a great performance last week against Edinburgh and is also included, as is Ulster’s top tackler, Reidy at the expense of Murphy. Marcell Coetzee starts at eight.
Billy Burns faces off against Irish hopeful Ross Byrne while the centre partnership of Stuart McCloskey and James Hume have only missed a combined 15 minutes of game time since the restart. Cooney’s move to the bench is a controversial move but I think we’ll see him fairly early in the second half with him having a point to prove. Youth is the calling in the back three with Jacob Stockdale, Rob Lyttle and Michael Lowry all starting.
Johnny Sexton is likely to make his first appearance against Ulster since January 2018 off the bench with Leo Cullen opting for a man who has guided them through the domestic campaign, Byrne. Still, it’s a commanding team that Cullen and Stuart Lancaster have named. Jordan Larmour, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe represent the threat from the back three while a fully loaded pack is a huge test for Ulster.
In previous meetings between the sides, the northern province have left themselves with a mountain of work to do after a sloppy opening 15 matches. Four of the last five matches in Dublin, Ulster have conceded a try within the opening six minutes which has set the tone for the game. The Heineken Champions Cup quarter final was the anomaly in this statistic as it was Ulster, through Kieran Treadwell who broke the deadlock early on.
I’ve always felt Ulster have been defeated before they take the pitch in the RDS over the last number of seasons. It’s all about breaking the game into short ten minute contests, as an early score for the Bluemen would dent Ulster’s confidence while the longer they hold Leinster out, the more confident they would grow.
Looking back to the quarter final, Ulster flew out of the blocks and had Leinster on the ropes in the opening half. Pressure forced a mistake from Garry Ringrose whose clearance kick was charged down by Rory Best allowing Treadwell to pounce for the opening score.
In the end, Leinster were too strong as Ulster dropped off in the second half. Getting on top of Ulster’s forwards is key, so Dan has opted for a 6/2 split on the bench. Allowing for an extra change in the forwards will hopefully allow Ulster to go toe-to toe for the full eighty while if required, Timoney could fill in on the wing if the worst comes to fruition.
With the odds heavily against Ulster – the bookies have Leinster as 11 point favourites – there’s no expectation from the media for Ulster to get a result. We’ve seen that anything can happen when they’re the underdogs in the past and they’ll be spurred on by the terrific comeback at Murrayfield last weekend.
It’s Ulster’s first final since 2013 and it’s now over 14 years since they lifted silverware. They’ve a great chance to prove a lot of people wrong, and I think we’ll be in for a fantastic game and performance from the men in white.
The FRU predicts: All signs are pointing towards a Leinster victory this evening and probably correctly so. They’re unbeaten in the league this year and are aiming to become the first side to complete a clean sweep of matches. Ulster pushed them close last season and I’m finding this match extremely hard to call so I’ll go with my heart and say an Ulster win with John Cooney slotting the match winning points.
|Jordan Larmour||15||Michael Lowry|
|Hugo Keenan||14||Rob Lyttle|
|Garry Ringrose||13||James Hume|
|Robbie Henshaw||12||Stuart McCloskey|
|James Lowe||11||Jacob Stockdale|
|Ross Byrne||10||Billy Burns|
|Jamison Gibson-Park||9||Alby Mathewson|
|Cian Healy||1||Eric O’Sullivan|
|Ronan Kelleher||2||Rob Herring|
|Andrew Porter||3||Tom O’Toole|
|Devin Toner||4||Alan O’Connor|
|James Ryan||5||Iain Henderson|
|Caelan Doris||6||Matthew Rea|
|Josh van der Flier||7||Sean Reidy|
|Jack Conan||8||Marcell Coetzee|
|James Tracy||16||John Andrew|
|Ed Byrne||17||Jack McGrath|
|Michael Bent||18||Marty Moore|
|Scott Fardy||19||Sam Carter|
|Will Connors||20||Jordi Murphy|
|Luke McGrath||21||John Cooney|
|Johnny Sexton||22||Ian Madigan|
|Rory O’Loughlin||23||Nick Timoney|