Belfast Telegraph

Opportunity knocks for Ulster with all pressure on noisy neighbours

By Michael Sadlier

So, it's a New Year but there is an old and very familiar foe up first. And Leinster aren't just noisy neighbours who have had plenty of success to crow about, they also have a pretty impressive record behind them when it comes to hosting their northern rivals.

One Ulster victory in Dublin this century - in March 2013 - is all that has been gained from travelling south since a similar outcome in 1999, so you could forgive Neil Doak for not particularly relishing this trip to a sold out RDS - the pre-season friendly win in Tallaght is hardly relevant - as he plots a first away win since September's victory at Cardiff Blues.

Yes, that's five league games away from Belfast and it reads one win, one draw and three defeats and if you add in Europe the total is seven matches with just an additional two reverses to add to this rather grim statistic.

And with Leinster in a somewhat unusual situation and badly needing a win - the presence of Jamie Heaslip, Devin Toner, Mike Ross and Fergus McFadden, who has just returned from injury, has greatly strengthened their hand - you would fear that fourth-placed Ulster may be facing quite a backlash today against the side currently sitting uncomfortably at sixth in the table.

But Ulster, outwardly at least, are content to make it known that all the pressure is on their opponents and that they can sense opportunity knocking.

The return of Rory Best and Tommy Bowe is of considerable benefit as, of course, is Ruan Pienaar's recovery though it remains to be seen just how sharp he is and whether his knee is up for any place-kicking or, indeed, his trademark box kicks.

Roger Wilson's recovery from the shoulder issue which forced him off against Connacht is also a much-needed boost though, again, you wonder just how much of a toll his heavy workload is taking.

Ulster will need Best to be at his most inspired, especially at the breakdown, to put their hosts under intense pressure in an encounter which sees flanker Clive Ross togging out against his rather better known cousin and prop Mike who will anchor the Leinster scrum.

The visitors certainly won't lack for motivation with Dan Tuohy determined to show up strongly with the Six Nations approaching fast though most attention will be focused on how Paddy Jackson fares playing opposite Ian Madigan with the latter very much in the frame to replace the stood-down Jonathan Sexton in Joe Schmidt's initial planning.

Darren Cave and Stuart Olding can also further enhance their reputations as can Craig Gilroy but, first and foremost, this is about delivering for Ulster and producing a consistent performance at what has traditionally been a difficult venue.

It's also a big occasion for Peter Nelson who moves from the wing to play at full-back - with Louis Ludik dropping out - and his aerial skills are sure to be tested.

Eight of today's starting side were part of the team which triumphed at the RDS back in 2013 so that must count for something and Ulster know their hosts are feeling more uneasy than usual. As such, it could hardly be a better time to give it a lash at the RDS.

But the overall quality in Leinster's starting side and that of their bench, which includes Sean Cronin, Jordi Murphy, Jimmy Gopperth and recent signing Ben Te'o, will probably be major factors in the ultimate outcome.

Belfast Telegraph

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