It has been a week of positives for Leinster as they announced a series of contract extensions following their move to the top of the RaboDirect PRO12, but can they stay in pole position or will former leaders Ulster recapture their best form in this mouth-watering Easter Saturday showdown?
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, March 30
LEINSTER (2nd) v ULSTER (3rd), the RDS, 6.15pm (live RTÉ Two/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: The Leinster team to face Ulster in Saturday night’s sold-out RaboDirect PRO12 derby clash at the RDS has been named.
Rob Kearney is one of seven internationals to return to the starting line-up following the province’s victory over the Glasgow Warriors last weekend.
The Louth man joins his brother David and Isa Nacewa in the back-three, while Dubliner Brendan Macken, on his 24th senior appearance, lines out in the centre with Leinster’s most-capped player Gordon D’Arcy who 218 caps to his name.
Isaac Boss continues at half-back alongside the league’s current top points scorer, Ian Madigan, who has tallied up 149 points in 18 games to date.
Hooker Richardt Strauss will make his 75th Leinster appearance after recovering from injury and takes his place in the front row alongside fellow Ireland internationals Cian Healy and Mike Ross.
Devin Toner, a second half replacement against Glasgow, partners Quinn Roux in the second row with captain Jamie Heaslip featuring in an experienced back row combination alongside Shane Jennings and Kevin McLaughlin.
Ireland trio Sean Cronin, Leo Cullen and Rhys Ruddock lead a strong replacements bench which gives head coach Joe Schmidt a good deal of options.
Saturday’s eagerly-awaited encounter will mark Leinster’s 100th capped interprovincial fixture of the professional era since August 1995.
Meanwhile, Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made six changes to the side that lost to Edinburgh for Saturday evening’s trip to the RDS.
Ruan Pienaar and Chris Henry return to the Ulster team having recovered from injury. Number 8 Nick Williams, who played the second half at Murrayfield last weekend, starts his first game since suffering a knee injury in January.
Ireland internationals Rory Best and Craig Gilroy also return to the province’s starting line-up following their involvement in the RBS 6 Nations.
With John Afoa in New Zealand for the birth of his third child, there is a first Ulster start for tighthead prop Ricky Lutton.
The 27-year-old Lutton, who was named Club Player of the Year at last year’s Heineken Ulster Rugby Awards, signed a development contract with the province at the start of this season.
Robbie Diack switches from number 8 to blindside flanker for the interprovincial clash, while Dan Tuohy reverts to his usual position in the second row.
Rob Herring, Lewis Stevenson and Paul Marshall drop to the bench. They are joined by back rowers Roger Wilson and Iain Henderson who have both recovered from injury.
Callum Black and Peter Nelson retain their places among the replacements while Academy prop Kyle McCall, who has represented Ireland at Under-20 level, is in line to make his first senior appearance for Ulster off the bench.
LEINSTER: Rob Kearney; David Kearney, Brendan Macken, Gordon D’Arcy, Isa Nacewa; Ian Madigan, Isaac Boss; Cian Healy, Richardt Strauss, Mike Ross, Devin Toner, Quinn Roux, Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings, Jamie Heaslip (capt).
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Jamie Hagan, Leo Cullen, Rhys Ruddock, John Cooney, Andrew Goodman, Andrew Conway.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Stuart Olding, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, Ricky Lutton, Johann Muller (capt), Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry, Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Kyle McCall, Lewis Stevenson, Iain Henderson, Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall, Peter Nelson.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Leo Colgan, David Connolly (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Jude Quinn (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Leinster to win: 3/10; Draw: 25/1; Ulster to win: 12/5
Pre-Match Quotes: Devin Toner (Leinster) – “The gap between us in the league (Leinster and Ulster) was huge at one stage, but we have gained an advantage now and I am sure Ulster will be gunning for us on Saturday night.
“They will want to wrestle back top spot. It’s up to us to stop them. I think we have the only 100% home record in the competition this season and that is something we want to hold on to as well.
“It’s always special for us playing at the RDS. This is a chance for us to make up for the mistakes we made in the game at Ravenhill too (when we lost 27-19 to Ulster).
“We allowed them to bully us in the scrums in particular and it is something we have worked on a lot, this week in particular.”
Mark Anscombe (Ulster) – “(Although we’re without John Afoa) we still have a good front row with Rory Best returning and Tom Court on the openside. Ricky (Lutton) has played before from the bench so he knows what to expect.
“You are reliant on everyone pulling together. Hopefully our style of play, our patterns and our communication is easily adoptable. These are good international footballers (returning to the team) and they will pick things up quickly.
“When you are short of preparation you then rely on a little bit of the character of the individual.
“Those sorts of stats (Ulster have not beaten Leinster in Dublin since 1999) are there to be broken. During the course of the year you guys in the media have been telling us what we have achieved as the season has moved along.
“Maybe this is another exciting one to go and do what we have not done for a while.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Leinster – Points: Ian Madigan 149; Tries: Ian Madigan 6; Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 89; Tries: Andrew Trimble 7
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Monday, December 27, 2010 – Ulster 13 Leinster 30, Ravenhill
Saturday, April 16, 2011 – Leinster 34 Ulster 26, the RDS
Friday, May 13, 2011 – Semi-final – Leinster 18 Ulster 3, the RDS
Monday, December 26, 2011 – Leinster 42 Ulster 13, the RDS
Friday, April 20, 2012 – Ulster 8 Leinster 16, Ravenhill
Friday, December 21, 2012 – Ulster 27 Leinster 19, Ravenhill
– Leinster are the best side in the RaboDirect PRO12 on current form having won their last seven matches since Ulster beat them in Belfast in December
– The Leinstermen moved to the top of the RaboDirect PRO12 table for the first time this season following their 22-17 win against the then top of the table Glasgow Warriors last weekend
– Leinster’s only home defeat to a fellow Irish province since 2003 in the RaboDirect PRO12 was to Munster at the RDS in September 2008
– Ulster are winless in their last three PRO12 matches and have picked up just four league points along the way
– The Ulstermen have lost their last three away games in the competition since beating the Scarlets in Llanelli in early December
– The Ulstermen have not beaten any of their provincial rivals away from home in the PRO12 since a trip to Connacht in September 2009
– Ulster’s 27-19 victory over Leinster in Belfast in round 11 ended a run of seven straight defeats to the Leinstermen in all competitions, however Ulster have not beaten Leinster in Dublin since August 1999, in the Interprovincial Championship at Donnybrook