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Ulster must show belief to emulate 2013 heroics in Dublin, says Court

RUGBY

By Michael Sadlier

He knows a thing or two about playing Leinster after having spent eight years at Ulster but, more importantly, Tom Court actually knows what it feels like to have won a game against them at the RDS.

And with Ulster there again on New Year's Eve and travelling somewhat weighed down by the grim statistic that they have managed just the solitary victory there since 1999 - both in regulation PRO12 games and more recent knockout encounters - Court seems an ideal go-to man on what needs to be done to win in Dublin.

"I do remember we beat them that one time down there," says Court - the 36-year-old loose-head prop, who is now in his third season with London Irish after departing Ulster in 2014 - when recalling that day in late March 2013 when the province mounted a huge rear-guard action to triumph 22-18.

"Those few years leading up to that, Ulster had been building through the Heineken Cup and the PRO12 but we had never been able to just get that win over Leinster down there.

"It seemed that they were always a step too far so that game (in 2013) meant a lot to the boys to get that win over them."

And it was not a significantly diluted Leinster side either with Jamie Heaslip, the Kearney brothers, Isa Nacewa, Devin Toner, Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Shane Jennings all in the starting team.

Ulster, chasing a PRO12 play-off place for the second time in three years, made the trip south with a pretty decent team, though Kyle McCall made a significantly memorable debut off the bench by managing to hold up Sean Cronin's last-gasp drive over the visitors' line.

But back to that day in 2013 - particularly special now as Ulster have failed to replicate their efforts since - and Court recalls that he and his team-mates managed to set their stall out early.

And doing that on Saturday is key to Ulster's chances even though Les Kiss is widely expected to be without Ireland players and key operators Rory Best, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson.

"You've got to get in their faces early on and rattle them just as, I suppose, Ireland did to New Zealand," says the player who represented Ulster 154 times and won 32 caps for Ireland.

"Get your points early and then make them chase the game and make them doubt themselves."

He returns to that theme when trying to explain why it is that Ulster struggle so much at the RDS.

"It's just one of those things, it's probably just a mental stigma really," says Court, who also made a cameo appearance on the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia in 2013.

"I think it's just like what Ireland had previously experienced when playing the All Blacks before last November came along.

"Maybe the place has an aura, I mean if I remember right there are a lot of photos as you walk in with Leinster teams holding up Heineken Cups and PRO12 trophies and things like that.

"Whether that matters I don't know, but it all adds to the atmosphere.

"But once you win again guys will realise it's not that scary a place to play.

"But then there is Leinster's class and quality and they are never going to be poor there.

"So, it's always going to be tough to beat them there no matter what."

The southern province, who were knocked off top spot at a full strength Munster on Boxing Day and currently lie in third, have yet to lose at the RDS this season.

And just to add to it all, Leo Cullen is set to deploy his most powerful side for the second round of festive inter-pros when Ulster arrive.

"You really need to send a side down who are comfortable playing with each other," says Court, who has no plans to retire after this season despite currently being in the final year of his existing deal at Irish, who are leading the English Championship as they bid to bounce back to Premiership rugby.

"A supposedly weakened team can mean that some of the combinations aren't quite right as they haven't played together a lot.

"And that makes it even tougher to beat such a well-polished side like Leinster."

Of course Ulster playing their 'home' PRO12 final there later that year in 2013 and coming up against, you guessed it, Leinster took quite a bit of the shine off this solitary win while also hardly assisting Ulster's dire record at the RDS as they lost the shootout for silverware.

"Yeah, that didn't work out for us," Court says with an ironic laugh.

"I know that there were reasons for it being there (the then Ravenhill was being rebuilt) but it still beggared belief that you would hand such an advantage to the opposition and particularly to them at the RDS."

Playing Leinster has also stuck in the craw thanks to 2012's Heineken Cup final thumping at Twickenham and, as it turned out, Court's final game in an Ulster shirt saw him red-carded at Ravenhill for a tip-tackle on Toner in May 2014.

The result of that was a two-week ban but he never played for Ulster again as though they had made the play-offs, the semi-final was again against Leinster and at the RDS. Enough said.

And what of Ulster's chances this weekend in the final game they will play in 2016? Court refuses to entirely dismiss their remote-looking chances. He adds: "The boys need to try and realise that they can do it. If you play well enough you'll beat anybody."

So says someone who knows.

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