AS challenges in club rugby go, they don’t get much greater than Leinster, yet Ulster will head to the Aviva Stadium on Saturday for their European Champions’ Cup last 16 tie with confidence.
That Ulster have even reached this stage is a plus given they lost their first three Pool games during a difficult run of form either side of Christmas, but a decent showing away to La Rochelle proved to be the prelude to a stirring home victory over Sale Sharks that saw them squeeze into the knockout stage thanks to that win and bonus points accumulated.
In contrast, high-flying Leinster have reached this stage as top seeds and will be roaring hot favourites to advance, but then that was the case back in 2019 when they were somewhat fortunate to escape with a 21-18 win at Lansdowne Road.
The pre-game narrative is similar this time around, but with Ulster having won four from five since that victory over Sale including a victory over Cell C Sharks in South Africa, they will not be daunted heading down the M1 this weekend.
“It’s the biggest challenge in club rugby across the world,” said Ulster Head Coach, Dan McFarland.
“It’s an Interpro and a Champion’s Cup play off game, what’s not to get excited about?
“History tells us that it’s a tough place for us to go. The last two years we have beaten them twice, we played well in patches in the other games but we weren’t good enough to beat them this year. We know we have the ability to win games against them but also are aware that if we are not playing to the peak of that ability, it’s going to be tough going but we are very motivated.”
📣 Team News— Ulster Rugby (@UlsterRugby) March 31, 2023
Your Ulster team to take on Leinster tomorrow in the @ChampionsCup 🔥
💪 Alan O'Connor captains the side
🔙 Rory Sutherland, Rob Herring, Tom O'Toole and Stuart McCloskey return pic.twitter.com/qxgIGyJknC
Both meetings between the sides in this season’s URC have gone the was of Leinster with the meeting in Dublin at the beginning of December marking he start of Ulster’s difficult run as they gave up a big lead and ultimately lost, a result that appeared to knock the stuffing out of them for a period as they lost five of the next six across both competitions.
Leinster are yet to taste defeat this season, but last weekend their 100 per cent record ended as they had to be content with a 22-22 draw against DHL Stormers in the URC - perhaps proving they aren’t infallible at just the right time for Ulster.
Leo Cullen’s side did prove their worth, however, as they recovered from a 17-0 deficit to run in four tries and claim a share of the spoils against the second-place team in the competition.
Ulster also had home advantage against South African opposition and were pushed hard by Vodacom Bulls, but a hat-trick from Tom Stewart saw them claim a 32-23 win to narrow the gap on the Stormers and guarantee a home quarter-final thanks to their recent winning streak.
“We had a good Six Nations period,” McFarland reflected as he paid tribute to Stewart’s performance at the weekend.
“We pushed areas of our game during that time and won against the Vodacom Bulls, who beat Leinster in the semi-final last year. On Saturday we came through a very physical encounter.
“Tom has had two years where he barely played any rugby. He used that time to develop physically, he’s always had a brilliant mindset and once his body was in good shape, he got his head down.
“Tom forced himself into that Ireland squad. We are lucky to have two of the four hookers in the Ireland squad. Rob Herring is fresh from scoring a try in a grand slam-winning game.”
📥 𝐓𝐡𝐞 #𝐋𝐞𝐢𝐧𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫𝐑𝐮𝐠𝐛𝐲 𝐭𝐞𝐚𝐦 𝐭𝐨 𝐟𝐚𝐜𝐞 𝐔𝐥𝐬𝐭𝐞𝐫!— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) March 31, 2023
Here is the Leinster team for tomorrow's @ChampionsCup Round of 16 clash with @UlsterRugby in a sold-out @AVIVAStadium #LEIvULS #FromTheGroundUp pic.twitter.com/VEjwADpeVh
Ulster have no fresh injury concerns ahead of this weekend’s European tie and while both sides will welcome back their international contingent, Leinster will be without Jonny Sexton whose club season is over due to a groin injury picked up in Ireland’s Grand Slam-winning game against England a fortnight ago.
Still, the hosts have an embarrassment of riches as they have star quality throughout, but Ulster’s objective will be to lay down an early marker and win the physical exchanges to earn a foothold in the game.
Leinster have averaged 36 points across their 20 games this season, so Ulster will need to click in attack and make the most of everything that comes their way to give themselves a chance of pulling out the win.
“The challenge is what it is,” McFarland accepts.
“We approach it so that it is on us to put in the best performance we can, be physical and make every moment a contest and the chips will fall where they fall.
“Leinster’s heartbeat is their gain line or line in quick ball so if you feed them that or if they can impose that, you will struggle in the game. We managed to be able to slow it down in past games, they are going to score tries against you or anybody, so you have to score too.
“We can influence the game in how we play. We need to get it right.”