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Leinster Welcome Back Keenan And Ryan For Belfast Trip

Leinster Welcome Back Keenan And Ryan For Belfast Trip

James Ryan presented Hugo Keenan with his BKT URC player-of-the-match medal after Leinster's home win over the Scarlets earlier in the season ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Leinster are boosted by returning duo Hugo Keenan and James Ryan as they head north for a mouth-watering BKT United Rugby Championship duel with Ulster at Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 7.35pm).

Having suffered an arm injury during Ireland’s Guinness Six Nations title-winning campaign, Ryan is set for his first appearance for the province since January. He will captain them from the second row at the sold-out Belfast ground.

A week out from the Investec Champions Cup final, full-back Keenan also slots back into the starting XV. He has not played since last month’s Champions Cup round 16 win over Leicester Tigers, due to a hip injury.

With that big European decider against Toulouse in mind, the Leinster selection shows 13 personnel changes and one positional switch to the team that hammered the Ospreys 61-14 last Saturday night.

Leo Cullen’s much-changed side are second in the URC standings, just a point behind Glasgow Warriors, but cannot afford to drop points as both Munster, just a point back, and the Vodacom Bulls are nipping at their heels in the battle for the higher seedings in the play-offs.

Jimmy O’Brien and Rónan Kelleher are the only players retained in the starting line-up, with O’Brien, the BKT URC player-of-the-match last week, moving to centre for the first time this season, alongside Charlie Ngatai.

Tommy O’Brien and Rob Russell, with 10 tries between them in the current campaign, join Keenan in the back-three, and Wicklow native Cormac Foley, starting his first game on Irish soil of 2024, links up with Harry Byrne at half-back.

The Champions Cup finalists will have 401 caps’ worth of experience in their front row, with 275 of them provided by veteran prop Cian Healy who has signed a one-year contract extension, setting up his 19th season in blue.

The fit-again Ryan will pack down with Wexford youngster Brian Deeny in the engine room, and a freshened up back row contains Max Deegan and Will Connors, who have both penned new contracts, and Jack Conan.

Among the replacements, there is a blend of experience and youth, with the likes of Ross Molony, Luke McGrath, and 21-year-old Academy back Ben Brownlee, who is in line to play in his first senior interprovincial derby, all set to feature.

Commenting on the returning players and the challenge that Ulster will pose, Leinster assistant coach Andrew Goodman said: “James has built well through his injury and to have him on the field was a big lift for everyone on a wet Monday. It was awesome.

“We got through some good detail there and it set us up for a good weekend ahead. Hugo’s done well over the last few weeks, getting to increase his load and he’s back in amongst the training, which is great.

“To have guys who have worked so hard off the field to come back in provides everyone with a good lift. With Garry (Ringrose, who is rehabbing a shoulder injury), it is one of those ones that’s day to day.”

He added: “I think Ulster have been building their confidence, the performances they’ve been able to put in and the results they’ve got. Great to see Richie (Murphy) getting the job. All those things will be a boost for them, playing at home.

“My experience with Ulster-Leinster games has been one-score games. There’s going to be some pressure moments in the game and we’ve got to make sure we come out on top of those – as many as we can to put pressure on them at their home ground, to take the crowd out of the game.

“We’re hungry to go up there and have a win because they’re desperate (to win), but so are we as well. We want to be contending (for) those top couple of positions in the URC, so it’s a massive week for us.”

LEINSTER (v Ulster): Hugo Keenan; Tommy O’Brien, Jimmy O’Brien, Charlie Ngatai, Rob Russell; Harry Byrne, Cormac Foley; Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, Michael Ala’alatoa, Brian Deeny, James Ryan (capt), Max Deegan, Will Connors, Jack Conan.

Replacements: John McKee, Michael Milne, Thomas Clarkson, Ross Molony, Scott Penny, Luke McGrath, Sam Prendergast, Ben Brownlee.