IT’S first versus second at the RDS on Saturday (7.35pm, live on TG4 and Viaplay Sports) as Ulster head south aiming to narrow the gap on URC leaders, Leinster.

Dan McFarland’s side has won four straight since losing out to this weekend’s opposition in the corresponding fixture in Belfast on the final day of September including two impressive road wins at Emirates Lions in South Africa and Munster.

The eight-point gap between the top two sides comes with an asterisk as Ulster have played one game less - their second planned fixture in South Africa against Cell C Sharks postponed.

 

Last weekend, they hit the ground running after the international break with a solid home victory over Zebre and there was further good news with Iain Henderson and Duane Vermeulen returning to the side.

Both sides will have their international contingents back with Leinster bidding to complete home and away victories over the northern province having lost both fixtures last season.

It’s the beginning of a big run for Ulster with three-inter-pros sandwiching European Champions Cup fixtures, so a good start would set them up for what could prove to be a pivotal run to close out the year.

“We’ve four big games before Christmas, and the first one is against Leinster," said McFarland.

"I don’t think there’s a tougher task in club rugby. They have so many quality players, but it’s a challenge we absolutely relish.” 

Ulster captain, Iain Henderson, who made a welcome return from injury last week in front of a packed-out Kingspan Stadium, has been named to start at blindside flanker and he will be joined in the back row by fellow Irish international Nick Timoney and Marcus Rea, who continues to impress in a competitive loose forward division.

The second row sees Kieran Treadwell back in the white jersey after another successful stint with Ireland, and he is partnered with Alan O’Connor, who has 163 Ulster caps to his name. 

Props, Andy Warwick and Marty Moore, line-out alongside last week’s Player of the Match, Tom Stewart, after the hooker scored a brace of tries in a 36-15 home win over Zebre Parma. 

Ulster’s top point-scorer, John Cooney, is paired with fly-half, Billy Burns, in one of the club’s most established partnerships. 

The centre sees Stuart McCloskey, who put in a barn-storming performance in the green shirt when he lined-out in all three November Test games, start together with fellow Ireland teammate, James Hume, for the first time this season following Hume’s return from injury.

Meanwhile, 23-year-old, Stewart Moore, who put the bonus-point try on the scoresheet in Round 8, forms a youthful back three with Ethan McIlroy and Mike Lowry, who both played their part in last year’s win over Leinster, which was only the second time the province has secured victory at the RDS.