The provinces’ festive derby matches will be kicked off by Ulster and Leinster at Ravenhill on Friday night, with fireworks expected in this meeting of the current RaboDirect PRO12 leaders and the reigning Heineken Cup champions.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, December 21
ULSTER (1st) v LEINSTER (3rd), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two)
Team News: Ulster head coach Mark Anscombe has made four personnel changes and two positional switches to the side that lost to Northampton Saints for Friday night’s derby match against Leinster.
Following Tommy Bowe’s knee injury, Andrew Trimble switches to the right wing with fellow Ireland international Craig Gilroy lining out on the left.
Luke Marshall starts at inside centre alongside Darren Cave with Paddy Wallace named on the bench. Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar continue their half-back partnership.
Full-back Jared Payne will be looking to add to his impressive run of five tries in nine games in the RaboDirect PRO12 so far this season.
Up front for the table-topping province, Tom Court, Rory Best and John Afoa will all start in an unchanged front row.
Second row Dan Tuohy suffered a torn calf muscle against Northampton Saints and his starting place is taken by Neil McComb.
In the other changes to the pack, Nick Williams moves from blindside flanker to number 8 with Roger Wilson dropping to the bench. Robbie Diack will don the number 6 short with captain Chris Henry continuing at openside.
Four players have been called up to the bench – Rob Herring, Adam Macklin, Alan O’Connor and Adam D’Arcy.
If he comes on, the game will be O’Connor’s first senior appearance for Ulster. The 20-year-old Dubliner joined the Hughes Insurance Ulster Academy in the summer.
He played his club rugby at Skerries until he was 18 before playing for two years at UCD. He was part of the Leinster sub-Academy before joining Ulster in July.
“I have come up here to play rugby and hopefully I will get a chance tomorrow night. It wouldn’t phase me to line out against my home province,” he said.
“I just want to perform at senior level – and playing against the European champions is just about as competitive as it gets.
“My dad has tickets for the game and will be making the trip up from Dublin for the match. He is a proud Leinsterman, but I am not sure who he will be cheering for tomorrow night!”
Meanwhile, the Leinster team to face Ulster in the eagerly-awaited interprovincial clash in Belfast contains a number of personnel changes.
Leo Cullen leads an all-Ireland qualified team for the trip north with the Leinster management mixing youth and experience.
Gordon D’Arcy partners Brendan Macken in the centre, with Eoin Reddan set to make his 74th Leinster appearance at half-back where he will link up with the versatile Ian Madigan.
Kevin McLaughlin returns to the back row alongside fellow Ireland internationals Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien.
Meanwhile, tighthead prop Michael Bent will make his second start for the province after being named alongside hooker Sean Cronin and Cian Healy in the front row.
Former CBS Naas back Adam Byrne has been named on the bench. He is in line to make his senior bow after impressing with two tries for the Leinster ‘A’ side in last weekend’s British & Irish Cup victory over Jersey.
ULSTER: Jared Payne; Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar; Tom Court, Rory Best, John Afoa, Iain Henderson, Neil McComb, Robbie Diack, Chris Henry (capt), Nick Williams.
Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Black, Adam Macklin, Alan O’Connor, Roger Wilson, Paul Marshall, Paddy Wallace, Adam D’Arcy.
LEINSTER: Noel Reid; Andrew Conway, Brendan Macken, Gordon D’Arcy, Fergus McFadden; Ian Madigan, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Michael Bent, Leo Cullen (capt), Devin Toner, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Aaron Dundon, Heinke van der Merwe, Jamie Hagan, Tom Denton, Rhys Ruddock, Isaac Boss, Andrew Goodman, Adam Byrne.
Referee: George Clancy (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Peter Fitzgibbon, Olly Hodges (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Dermot Moloney (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 2/5; Draw: 20/1; Leinster to win: 2/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Nick Williams (Ulster) – “I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the winning run wasn’t in the back of our heads at the time. With all that comes pressure and, look, it was eventually going to end anyway.
“We all know that it (the second Northampton game) wasn’t our best performance especially after not being at home for a while, and the harder we tried as individuals and a team to correct it the more nothing seemed to stick.
“But the beautiful thing about rugby is now we get another crack and what better team to do it against than the European champions.
“As a team, we had a chat on Tuesday and there are very few around that have ever beaten Leinster. For me personally, I lost to them for Munster and then Aironi so it’s one thing I want to try and straighten out.
“We know we didn’t play well last weekend and that is going to play a big part in how we come out against Leinster.”
Eoin Reddan (Leinster) – “RaboDirect PRO12 games are massive for individuals in terms of getting selected for those bigger games. We have a job to do this week.
“That job isn’t to win, really, it is to do certain things that are asked of us, and those standards usually lead to victory.
“We have a massive responsibility, the guys who take to the pitch this week, to be very accurate in everything we do and, if the result comes with that, then great.
“But it’s about getting the performance right and working on the specific things that we need to improve on. Even if we had won last weekend (against Clermont Auvergne), it is still a massive goal of ours to win the PRO12.
“Maybe the fact we lost last weekend puts a bit more pressure on us to perform on Friday night, but even had we won last weekend this would still be a very important game for us.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 60; Tries: Jared Payne 5; Leinster – Points: Jonathan Sexton 67; Tries: Brendan Macken, Ian Madigan 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, December 26, 2009 – Leinster 15 Ulster 3, the RDS
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
– Ulster have made the best start to a RaboDirect PRO12 season since the tournament went ‘home and away’ for the 2003/04, season
– The only opposing team to triumph at Ravenhill in the league since October 2011 were Leinster themselves back in April
– Leinster have lost just one of their last five PRO12 encounters, going down 19-10 away to the Ospreys on November 4
– The Leinstermen have lost just one of their last nine fixtures against fellow Irish provinces
– Ulster’s only win over Leinster in their last 18 clashes since 2004 was 16-14 at Ravenhill in the RaboDirect PRO12 back in October 2009