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Ulster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Guinness Pro14, Round 7
Ravenhill, Belfast,
Saturday, 28th October 2017, 18:30

TV: Live on Sky Sports

So 10 out of 10 ain't bad!

Going to Glasgow and returning with five points to go with the five points from the first week has certainly exceeded expectations in Europe.  It wasn't perfect and there was still far too many tackles missed but Leinster bullied Glasgow up front and were pretty ruthless with the chances they created.  There's still a long way to go in the pool however as Exeter's superb win in Montpellier has set up the double-header in December perfectly.

This weekend though it's back to the league as Leinster take on old rivals Ulster.  Last week in Europe didn't go quite as well for them as they were stuffed by La Rochelle.  In fairness it was no disgrace to lose to La Rochelle as they are currently playing some of the best rugby around and have been a breath of fresh air in the dull smog of the Top14.  However what will rankle with Ulster fans was the team selected, which seemed to chuck the towel in before the game even started.  After an impressive home win over Wasps got Ulster off to a great start, their director of rugby Les Kiss decided to drop three-quarters of this three-quarter line in Louis Ludik, Luke Marshall and Jacob Stockdale.  He replaced them with a trio of past their best stars in Tommy Bowe, Darren Cave and Andrew Trimble.  Perhaps Kiss could be forgiven for hoping the stars could re-discover some of their former glory (they didn't) but the most bizarre selection was at scrum-half.

Paul Marshall's continued career as a professional rugby player is a stark indication of Ulster's lack of options at scrum-half.  His main attribute is pace and for the last seven years he's proven adept at coming in late in games which Ruan Pienaar had already won and racing away for a try to finish off a win.  However in all other aspects of scrum-half play, he simply hasn't been good enough.  

The roars of anguish from fans north of the border when the news broke of Pienaar's departure weren't just from their love of the South African, it was the stark question to the IRFU ... "you're leaving us with just Marshall?".  In fairness the IRFU engineered the transfer from Connacht of former Leinster scrum-half John Cooney to replace Pienaar.  Cooney always had strong fundamentals for the position as well as being fairly nifty himself and in his time in Connacht he added place-kicking to his repertoire too.  He had started the season very nicely by all accounts so it was truly bizarre when Kiss benched him for their toughest test of the season.  

Some tried to argue that it was just rotation, but you play your best team in Europe, unless you're lucky enough to have two quality players in the same position such as Cian Healy and Jack McGrath.  The team selection set the tone and they were duly hammered.  With a double-header against the winless Harlequins to come, Ulster could still turn this around but the strange selection will increase the murmurings about Kiss that he isn't up to the top job.  Since Kiss arrived two seasons two after leaving his role as defensive coach for Ireland, it's been largely disappointing for Ulster.  They haven't qualified from their pool in Europe in either season and last season they failed to make the semi-finals of the Pro12.  

Changes were needed and Kiss's coaching staff was over-hauled with Neil Doak and Allen Clarke replaced by Dwayne Peel and former Leinster forwards coach Jonno Gibbes.  Gibbes is one of the highest rated coaches in the game but he's only so much to work with, especially in the pack.  You get the feeling that if Kiss can't generate a significant improvement this season, there will be moves to make Gibbes the top man.

With all the talk of scrum-halves somewhat ironically Cooney and Marshall, plus principle back up Dave Shanahan are all injured or unavailable this week.  So Kiss has given Aaron Cairns his first competitive start at number nine with the uncapped Jonny Stewart on the bench.  Luke Marshall
and Jacob Stockdale are both recalled to the three-quarter line.  In the pack Rory Best is fit again to be named at hooker and earn his 200th Ulster cap.  Jean Deysel's return to the back row sees Iain Henderson move back to the second row but he retains the captaincy.  Rodney Ah You is chosen as tighthead prop in the final change to the team from last week.  

For Leinster it's the last time they'll have access to internationals before waving goodbye for the November series, but Leo Cullen is able to name quite a strong side despite making twelve changes from the team that started last week.  

There's an all Ireland international pack with Jack McGrath and James Tracy joining Tadhg Furlong in the front row.  James Ryan gets another chance to impress in the second row alongside Devin Toner and there's a whole new back row in Dan Leavy, Jordi Murphy and Sean O'Brien.  Ross Byrne and Jamison Gibson-Park and the trio of Rob Kearney, Adam Byrne and Dave Kearney are named in the back three eager to show their worth to those unimpressed by their selection in the national squad.  Noel Reid retains his place at inside centre and Rory O'Loughlin fit again to play at outside centre.

Leinster will have bitter memories of their last visit to Ulster.  It was the last regular game of the season and though they dominated Ulster in the set-piece to an almost ridiculous extent, their general attitude was lazy and careless and they duly lost a game they should have won.  This meant they faced the in-form Scarlets instead of the Ospreys in the semi-final and the rest is history.  

It's a game that could go either way, but hopefully Leinster will have the edge up front to earn an away win.


15. Rob Kearney
14. Adam Byrne
13. Rory O'Loughlin
12. Noel Reid
11. Dave Kearney
10. Ross Byrne
9. Jamison Gibson-Park

1. Jack McGrath
2. James Tracy
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Devin Toner
5. James Ryan
6. Dan Leavy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Sean O'Brien (captain)


16. Richardt Strauss
17. Cian Healy
18. Andrew Porter
19. Ross Molony
20. Jack Conan
21. Luke McGrath
22. Cathal Marsh
23. Jordan Larmour

Not considered due to injury: Tom Daly, Jamie Heaslip, Garry Ringrose, Ian Nagle, Isa Nacewa, Barry Daly. Josh van der Flier


15. Charles Piutau
14. Tommy Bowe
13. Luke Marshall
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Jacob Stockdale
10. Christian Lealiifano
9. Aaron Cairns

1. Callum Black
2. Rory Best
3. Rodney Ah You
4. Alan O'Connor
5. Iain Henderson (captain)
6. Sean Reidy
7. Chris Henry
8. Jean Deysel


16. Rob Herring
17. Andy Warwick
18. Ross Kane
19. Kieran Treadwell
20. Robbie Diack
21. Jonny Stewart
22. Peter Nelson
23. Louis Ludik

Not considered due to injury: Peter Browne, Marcell Coetzee, John Cooney, Wiehahn Herbst, Paul Marshall, Kyle McCall, Caleb Montgomery, Jack Owens, Jared Payne, Dave Shanahan

Referee: John Lacey


by Jim O'Connor, © 2017-12-23