Guinness PRO14: Leinster v Ulster
(RDS, Friday, 7.35pm, live on Premier Sport and Eir Sport)
IT'S a meeting between an unbeaten side against one aiming to bounce back from defeat when Ulster visit the RDS in Dublin tomorrow to face Leinster.
For those who give a passing glance to the PRO14, it may be assumed that the hosts and defending champions are the side who have all the momentum heading into Friday's inter-provincial clash, but not so.
Leo Cullen's Leinster suffered a surprise 35-24 defeat on home turf last weekend that brought to an end their 26-game winning streak win in the league, while in contrast, Ulster maintained their 100 per start to the PRO14 with a 15-10 home win against Munster that made it 10 domestic wins from 10 this season.
It certainly is a different scenario than in recent times when these teams have met as Leinster look to ensure they don't lose successive PRO14 games for the first time ever, while Ulster target just their second-ever win at the RDS on their 18th visit.
"There is an interest factor to it in terms of playing Leinster this weekend as it is always going to be a massive game for us, no matter whether we had won lost, or they had won or lost (last weekend)," said Ulster head coach Dan McFarland who is expecting a typically stern test in Dublin.
"The biggest surprise is they lost a game of rugby. That's one out of 27 and if I was to say to you that a team that has lost one game in 27 is vulnerable... I don't think so. This is a massive challenge for us and I recognise it as such.
"They had won 26 games in-a-row and lost so they are going to be very disappointed. Does that motivate them more? I don't know; I don't live in their camp but what I do hear from there through the media, they talk about their process and performance. That's why I believe they have been this good for such a long time.
"I suspect when they win and don't play very well, they are pretty hard on themselves so when they've lost and not played well they will be hard on themselves again.
"They had real injury problems last week and some Covid things to deal with. They had some inexperienced guys in there and me a Connacht team that was loaded pretty well and had their own bit of business to deal with from the previous week."
With their winning streak at an end, Leinster head coach Leo Cullen is expected to ring the changes and that could mean a return from injury for full-back Jordan Lamour.
Johnny Sexton may also be available if he completes the return-to-play protocols following last week's HIA while James Ryan, Andrew Porter, Robbie Henshaw, Caelan Doris, Cian Healy and Jamison Gibson-Park returned to training this week.
For Ulster, Sean Reidy will certainly miss out having undergone shoulder surgery that is likely to keep him sidelined for three months, with Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, Luke Marshall, Rob Baloucoune, Rob Lyttle, Will Addison, Louis Ludik and Angus Curtis also not in contention, whilst Jacob Stockdale has not recovered in time after hobbling out of the Munster victory late on with a knee injury.
Like Connacht last week, Ulster will travel to the RDS with a number of former Leinster players in their ranks but that does not dilute the desire of those ex-Blues to score a victory with McFarland laughing off the suggestion that he should feel sorry for Cullen who has had injury headaches of his own.
"Ultimately, players don't play for motherhood or apple pie - they play for their friends," he stressed.
"Do I feel sorry for Leo? Are you joking? He’s sat in amongst 10 or 12 of the wealthiest schools in the country plying people from rich families through those schools, churning out bursaries to the best prospects. Do I feel sorry for him? That’s hilarious.
"I love it up here, as Andy Friend loves it in Connacht - doing the hard yards.
"When guys like Nick Timoney, Dave Shanahan and Alan O’Connor or Jordi (Murphy) run out with a white jersey on they are Ulster men, plain and simple."
Ulster currently sit on top of Conference A, 10 points ahead of Leinster who have two games in hand, so a win on Friday would leave them in pole position in the standing as-well-as completing a sweep of the inter-pro games over the festive period.
However, it is simply the chance to emerge from the RDS with a rare victory that is the main motivation and the Ulster coach is hopeful his side can do just that against a club that has been the standard bearers in Irish rugby.
"It's an opportunity for us," he agreed.
"I have a huge amount of respect for Leinster as a province and a club. What they have done over the last number of years is totally deserved and fair play to them.
"For us it's a huge opportunity and a huge challenge. Winning away in Dublin in itself - forget about the league - is something you aspire to and want to be a part of.
"You could see in the post-match interviews what it meant to Connacht and I'm sure it would mean the same to us if we are able to do that."