United Rugby Championship: Ulster v Leinster
(Kingspan Stadium, Saturday, 7.35pm, live on Premier Sport)

IT has been quite some time since Ulster have scored home and away victories over Leinster in the same season, but the motivation to overtake their rivals into top spot in the URC table is what will be the main driving force on Saturday.

This game was due to take place on New Year’s Day, but a wave of Covid cases in the Ulster squad forced its cancellation, so they now meet with the stakes perhaps a little greater given the season is entering its crunch period.

As always, a packed house is expected and the atmosphere may be greater still considering the Kingspan Stadium gates will open earlier than usual to allow fans to watch the England vs Ireland Six Nations game on the big screens before these inter-provincial rivals lock horns and with Ulster seeking to back-up their 20-10 win at the RDS back in November, it makes for a huge night at the Ravenhill venue.

“When we won down there, that was the first time we’d done it in nine or ten years, so nobody in the squad has experienced doing that double,” said Ulster’s skills coach, Dan Soper.

“If we could do that, it would be excellent, but it’s not something that’s particularly driving us. It’s just about this game as we know how big it is.

“We know it has a big impact on the league and when you go into playoffs (and home games), so it’s more about that for us this week.”

Given this game is played during the international window, both sides will be missing some players but then it is also true that games between the pair over the festive period would ordinarily see a raft of changes, so perhaps it may not have as great an impact as thought.

Ulster have been boosted by the return of some key figures in recent weeks including Jordi Murphy, John Cooney and Iain Henderson who played the full 80 minutes in last week’s impressive win over Cardiff, so there is a sense that they are beginning to get everyone back fit and healthy at the right time of the year with so many big games fast approaching.

“We’re used to this fixture being played over Christmas and so on when players are on a break, so we are used to the teams not being at full strength,” Soper accepted.

“I still don’t think that takes away from it at all because it’s first against second in the league, so there’s a lot to play for. When there are players not available, it means an opportunity for somebody else.”

Ulster fans will look to that November win in Dublin and hope that it represents a change in fortunes against their great rivals, but consistently gaining the upper hand must now be the target given Leinster have been far and away the leading Irish side over the past decade.

They will take confidence from that win, but know it guarantees absolutely nothing this weekend and it will take a huge effort to get the better of Leo Cullen’s side.

“When you play Leinster, you know it’s a step up and a really big challenge,” stressed the Ulster coach.

“They have been the standard setters for a number of years and as is the case when you play your nearest rival, there is an added wee jump in the step all week.

“We will take confidence from the result at the RDS before Christmas, but there’s been such a lot of water under the bridge and changes to the teams. We will look back at it, but more at our recent performances and how we can make progress on some of the things we’ve been trying to work on in recent weeks rather than look too far back.”

James Hume sealed that win in Dublin with an intercept try two minutes from time and the rising star certainly enjoyed touching down that evening.

His celebration may have ruffled a few feathers, but Soper doesn’t believe Leinster will have dwelt on it too much and expects them to travel north with the motivation to remain on top of the table the main focus.

“I just think that’s the enthusiasm of a young man,” he opined.

“It was a big game and that was the moment James and the guys realised that we were actually going to win it.

“It’s not something we encourage or practice, just part of the emotion the guys had invested in the game and they put so much into it, sometimes a bit of emotion comes out.

“I’m sure Leinster have many ways to motivate themselves and I don’t think looking at that is something they would use.”