Belfast Telegraph

Inside Track: A look at today's crucial derby tussle as Ulster Rugby take on Leinster in Dublin

By Jonathan Bradley

Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key head to head battles, the main threats and the tactics in today’s PRO12 clash between Leinster and Ulster at the RDS.

Head to head

Dave Kearney v Tommy Bowe

With battles between Ireland internationals all over the pitch, one of the most intriguing head to heads will be that of Tommy Bowe against Dave Kearney.

With Bowe, as well as a host of other wing options, absent for last season's Six Nations, the younger Kearney brother grabbed his chance in a green shirt and ended the tournament as a fully fledged Test player.

Injury, however, would keep him out of the November series and he had to watch from the sidelines as both Bowe and Simon Zebo made an impact on their returns to the starting line-up.

With Ireland's first Six Nations game against Italy in Rome occurring just five weeks from today, both men will be keen to put down a marker as there will be some talented players left on the outside looking in.

Bowe, rested for the game against Connacht due to the IRFU stipulations, will be raring to go having not played since the Ospreys defeat, while Kearney only returned from a hip issue last month.

Jack McGrath v Wiehahn Herbst

It says much about the progress of Jack McGrath in 2014 that the injury suffered by Leinster and Ireland's talismanic loose-head Cian Healy has not been the unqualified disaster it could have been.

Having filled in for both club and country - McGrath started for Ireland against both South Africa and Australia in November - the 25-year-old may lack Healy's unique ballast in the loose but will still readily carry the ball, while his scrummaging has held up at Test level over the course of 12 caps earned since debuting against Samoa in 2013.

He will go to battle with Wiehahn Herbst in the set-piece after the South African made a successful return to the Ulster line-up in last week's win over Connacht.

The 26-year-old had missed two games due to a hamstring injury and the Ulster scrum struggled as a unit without him. Whichever young prop gets the edge today could have a significant impact.

Jamie Heaslip v Roger Wilson

When Roger Wilson looks over at his opposite number today, he may wonder how many more Ireland caps he would have amassed if it were not for the remarkable durability of Jamie Heaslip.

Despite the relative demands of the position, the 31-year-old Leinster captain is a warhorse who rarely shirks the dirty work and, while his game with ball in hand is occasionally criticised for its consistency, he has the capacity to hurt Ulster as a carrier.

Wilson has had to display his own durability just to make the starting line-up at the RDS this afternoon after picking up a shoulder injury against Connacht last Friday.

Given the lack of options in the backrow - Nick Williams, Iain Henderson and Chris Henry are all still missing - Neil Doak will be thrilled to have the 33-year-old and will rely on his experience at the breakdown.

The main threats

Leinster will be suffering from a case of wounded pride after last week's limp defeat to Munster and are sure to want to make a statement in their third consecutive inter-provincial derby.

Five Ireland internationals return to give it a much stronger look with Jack McGrath and Mike Ross joining fellow Test player Richardt Strauss in the front-row, captain Jamie Heaslip is back at No 8, Devin Toner at lock and Fergus McFadden fit to take his place on the wing.

Ian Madigan has been shifted around the backline this season, but has always offered a threat.

He starts at fly-half today and Ulster will be wary of his playmaking ability. Neil Doak is able to call on an international reinforcements himself with the Tommy Bowe, Rory Best and Ruan Pienaar representing 214 caps worth of experience.

Pienaar's inclusion at nine means he teams up with fly-half Paddy Jackson for the first time this season.

The tactics

The significant list of recent backline departures - that now includes Brian O'Driscoll, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa - has certainly altered Leinster's style of play, while the promotion of coach Joe Schmidt to the Ireland job has further contributed to the shift away from the sparkling play that lit up their back-to-back Heineken Cup wins of 2011 and 2012.

With Schmidt's successor, Matt O'Connor, a man under some degree of pressure, much of the criticism has centred around Leinster's more prosaic game with ball in hand.

Even in recent wins against Ospreys and Harlequins, the men in blue have hardly thrilled, but they have still scored more tries than any other side in the Pro12.

Ulster's defence, still the stingiest despite the pre-Christmas wobble against Ospreys, will need to show the organisation and commitment that held Connacht out last week if they are to succeed again.

Belfast Telegraph

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