Belfast Telegraph

Ulster are fired up and ready to shoot down Leinster as PRO12 end is in sight

By Jonathan Bradley

The popular mantra for sports teams at this time of year, and the PRO12's play-off chasers are no different, is that "every game is a cup final".

Given how they have fared against their southern neighbours in knockout rugby over recent seasons, Ulster may be well served to ignore such an idiom for Friday evening's clash with Leinster but Paddy Jackson is aware that both teams will have their season on the line.

Having had each of his first four professional seasons ended by a defeat to Leinster, Ulster and their out-half have the chance to inflict a similar blow on Matt O'Connor's men this weekend.

After losing to Toulon in Sunday's Champions Cup semi-final, another defeat would also almost certainly see Leinster miss out on the PRO12 play-offs for the first time since the system was introduced in 2009/10, and seal Ulster's place in the top four in the process.

While a top-two position, and the accompanying home semi-final, remains the ultimate goal over the course of the final three PRO12 games, Jackson admits that eliminating one of their title rivals from the reckoning does provide extra motivation.

"It would be an added incentive," he admitted.

"It's potentially almost like a quarter-final for them and for us. They're fighting, they need to win to stay in the competition and obviously we need to win to try and solidify our spot in the play-offs. It's kind of cup final rugby.

"Their backs are against the wall now and they're going to have to fight their way out of it. They've lost their last two games and they're not a side who you would put too much money on to lose three in a row so we know it's going to be especially difficult."

On the subject of added incentives, Friday's contest, as well as next weekend's encounter with Munster, pits Jackson in direct opposition with the other men vying for places backing up Johnny Sexton at September's World Cup.

The elbow injury suffered by Jackson - capped nine times by Ireland but not since March 2014 - back in January meant that he was forced to watch on during the Six Nations as Ian Keatley donned the Irish number 10 shirt against Italy and Ian Madigan gained five caps off the bench.

Having also missed last summer's tour to Argentina with a back complaint, Jackson, who last heard from national coach Joe Schmidt just before he went under the knife three months ago, feels that he has given his inter-provincial rivals a considerable head start in terms of selection.

"Because I've missed out on so much, I am going to have to play really, really well," reflected the 23-year-old.

"I'm not kicking either so that's one more thing against me with the likes of Mads and Keats kicking for their clubs.

"I've just got to show what I can do with ball in hand and if I get the opportunity to kick then I'll take my chances.

"Everyone wants to make the World Cup squad, it's what you dream about when you're a little kid, playing in those massive tournaments."

And he is relishing facing his direct opponents for a place in the World Cup squad.

"It's good to have a game against Leinster this week and then Munster next week - we'll all be looking to show what we can do so these are the kind of games you want to play in.

"If I can show what I can do at the end of the season, and then maybe in the pre-season with Ireland, then hopefully I can force my way in."

And so, Jackson acknowledges, the best way to get into World Cup consideration is to impress with Ulster in their bid for PRO12 silverware.

Victories over Leinster this week and Munster the next would have Ulster in a strong position to claim a home semi-final and, with the decider already pre-determined to be at the Kingspan Stadium on May 30, move them into pole position for a first title since 2006.

Jackson admits that ending the drought is foremost in the minds of the squad.

"We're dying for a bit of silverware having got so close recently," he lamented.

"In the five seasons I've been here we've been close and it's just been very frustrating," he added.

"We've learnt from those experiences and we know that now it's time to do it.

"It's a great opportunity. We've got a good track record here and the possibility of playing the semi and the final at home is only going to improve our chances."

Given the conclusion of recent seasons, removing Leinster from the equation certainly wouldn't hurt either.

Belfast Telegraph

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