Belfast Telegraph

Neil Doak hopes unaltered Ulster side can repeat Connacht win against Leinster

By Michael Sadlier

You can feel the pressure ramping up and not just because it's Leinster in town, nor indeed the fact that Ulster, well, generally haven't handled their southern neighbours very well of late.

With games now running out, there is also a prize to be striven for tonight for the hosts. Should Ulster win, then a place in the top four will be secure which will be just one box ticked on their must-do list as Neil Doak's third-placed squad have much more to chase down.

And yes, Leinster have been a thorn in their side for several seasons now, but this time there is an inescapable feeling that the tables are turning on the back-to-back league champions. A misfiring PRO12 campaign has Leinster looking cast adrift in fifth and now facing the stark reality of not making the semi-finals.

They simply must win tonight while also somehow gathering themselves for another massive game just five days after losing out narrowly in that 100-minute marathon which was their Champions Cup semi-final against Toulon.

An understandably unchanged Ulster side, from the one which took maximum points off Connacht, come into this clearly fresher and probably with that bit more belief. They also know that tonight represents their best shot for some time at taking the scalp of the one outfit who have caused them so much heartache.

Ulster also possess a very robust home record having won all nine PRO12 games at the Kingspan this season. It all adds to the feeling that they have the edge this time though, of course, it was Leinster who were the last side to taste league success in Belfast on their previous visit in May 2014.

But this will still be no easy task against a still powerful looking Leinster fighting for survival. Ulster's work at scrum time was anything but highly polished against Connacht and, here, Leinster will fancy themselves with Cian Healy and Mike Ross ready for action.

And at the lineouts, Ulster have to be more accurate with Devin Toner on the prowl while the breakdown will ask everything of the back row thanks to the presence of Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip.

Indeed, the recently returned Chris Henry's duel with O'Brien will be pivotal as will the need to prevent the Blues star from getting up a head of steam with his powerful ball-carrying.

Every aspect of Henry's game will just have to be as close to the money as possible while another gut-busting game from Iain Henderson must also be delivered along with hard grafting from Roger Wilson - who tonight equals Paddy Wallace's Ulster record of 131 league games.

Elsewhere, Ulster have the more balanced looking and dynamic half-back partnership in Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson and they should also have the sounder midfield thanks to Darren Cave and Jared Payne.

And even though Leinster's back three is rather impressive - the Luke Fitzgerald match up against Tommy Bowe looks tasty - the home side have the league's top try scorer Craig Gilroy to deploy along with Bowe, who bagged a brace against Connacht.

It will be some game but if Ulster can keep their discipline, and contain O'Brien, then they should have the stronger finish required to take Leinster down.

Ireland winger Keith Earls says he has had to take extra measures to ensure he stays fit after battling back from a troublesome knee problem.

The 27-year-old Lion missed the start of the season after picking up an injury during a national camp last August.

Earls returned against Zebre in January and has played 10 games for Munster since then, scoring five tries, and has also featured for the Irish Wolfhounds.

"I'm happy playing rugby for the first time in a couple of years," he said.

"It flares up now and then, it's something I might have to keep looking after for the rest of my career. Sometimes I feel good but it needs to have a good warm-up."

Munster are second in the PRO12 and face Treviso tomorrow before the crucial fixture against Ulster tomorrow fortnight.

"We're keeping it to one game at a time, so I don't think we dare talk of Ulster and Dragons yet," added Earls.

Belfast Telegraph

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