Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

It's time for Ulster to show they are major contenders

Fond memory: Robbie Diack, captain tonight, scores against Leinster at the RDS

Let me be absolutely honest. It's not often a Pro 12 game captures the imagination but when Leinster and Ulster run out at the RDS today there is, weather permitting, the possibility of recreating a special inter-provincial rivalry from times past.

Certainly, on the basis of recent success, Leinster and Munster has assumed the mantle of top derby on the Irish rugby calendar but, under Mark Anscombe and Brian McLaughlin before him, Ulster rugby has moved right up there alongside our top two and right now is in my view slightly ahead in terms of the totality of the northern package save when Leinster hit Heineken Cup form such as that near flawless performance at Franklin's Gardens that few if any present or watching in will ever forget.

To that add a domestic league table, which as we hit the half way mark, sees Ulster and Leinster positioned fourth and fifth behind runaway leaders Munster and with just a single point separating the chasing duo. A win for one or the other will see the main challenger to Munster emerge as we enter the New Year and all that entails.

For both provinces it is all to play for but for Ulster in particular a four week period set to make or break their season. As former centre now assistant coach Jonny Bell put it: "we've got four big weeks ahead of us now with Leinster and Munster in the Pro 12 followed by Montpellier and Leicester in the Heineken Cup. Hitting the ground running against Montpellier is the clear priority but the next two weekends are central to that process"

He is of course spot on in terms of priorities but if ever opportunity knocked to lay the groundwork then Leinster followed by Munster is sure as hell the way to go. Bear in mind that Ulster did the domestic double over the reigning champions last season but came up short (having had to concede home advantage for the final) in an absolute corker at the RDS back in May (where Fergus McFadden and Leo Cullen showed off the trophy, right).

From an Irish perspective all three provinces are going well but Ulster with so many walking wounded set to return and given the stage of collective development have all the signs of a potent force in the making and potential Heineken Cup winners to boot.

That is a big statement given the presence of Top 14 juggernauts Clermont Auvergne and Toulon never mind Montpellier, Toulouse, Castres and the rest.

Munster's form as in winning consistency thus far this season has been outstanding but when push comes to shove we fear for that lack of attacking balance and potency behind the scrum. Leinster certainly possess that 'X' factor in abundance but worryingly for Matt O'Connor, not least the return against Northampton, have been blowing hot and cold.

They, like Ulster, need to send out a message of intent, following poor back to back performances and defeats to Northampton and Edinburgh although the Murrayfield match should never have been played. That said, it was and they came up significantly short for the second match (since the Franklin's Gardens tour-de-force) running.

So when fourth meets fifth and blue entertains white in the festive cauldron that will be the RDS something's got to give.

There is something very special about inter-provincial derbies irrespective of what heights many of those central to the action have or ever will achieve in the game. The intensity comes with the occasion and the nature of the opposition.

Ulster have Robbie Diack, Roger Wilson, Chris Henry, Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Tom Court on the mend while Paddy Wallace is also back fit and firing with Rory Best, Tommy Bowe and whisper it Stephen Ferris all rehabilitating in the background. If the big man makes it back what a bonus but in terms of a fast growing ever deepening squad Ulster Rugby is in a pretty healthy place.

For Leinster it is as much about getting the top two inches back in sync as any other factor.

What we witnessed in round three of the Heineken Cup was as close to rugby perfection from an Irish team on the road as you will ever get. Yes it was that good. But today the heat is back on. They are due a return to that level of performance particularly on their home patch before the blue faithful.

They are still in control of their Heineken Cup Pool but because of that under par performance at home to the Saints they travel to Castres next up for a game riddled with danger.

Therein lies the challenge and the biggest if un-stated prize for both provinces this evening.

Win and the French preparation is up and running. Lose and, well we'll leave that to O'Connor and Anscombe.

Either way, conditions allowing, we are in for a Christmas cracker.