30 November 2020
Clamour for captain Johnny's return says it all about Ireland while Ulster hope their young Sexton can help deliver eight in a row
Aaron Sexton is to make his competitive debut for Ulster tonight.

If Dan McFarland was to call last week's bonus-point win over Scarlets a curate's egg of a performance, then his Ireland counterpart Andy Farrell could be forgiven for deeming his own side's crawl past Georgia yesterday just plain rotten.

It says much for the expected margin between the sides that we are talking of victories in both cases but, if Ulster have put together a large enough body of work of late to be unconcerned, yesterday's second-half was part of a worrying trend for Ireland under Farrell.

While Shane Daly became the 10th debutant of a bizarre 2020, and Ulster's Billy Burns was one bright spot in an otherwise dull day, it says much that the return of their 35-year-old skipper Johnny Sexton is so sought after in the hope it gives this seemingly rudderless outfit some sense of direction heading into 2021.

The side have done little beyond meeting the minimum expectations over the past year and the conclusion to what once felt a mostly meaningless competition now looms large when Scotland come to town this weekend.

Defeat to a side who haven't won in Dublin since Ireland were playing their games in Croke Park would leave little doubt as to just how dramatic a fall from grace has been endured over the past 22 months.

Before we get to that all-Celtic clash though, there's another to focus upon.

Ulster are back in action this evening, of course, and returning to the scene of arguably their greatest triumph of the McFarland era.

It was less than three months ago that the northern province were meeting Edinburgh in Murrayfield on the grander stage of a PRO14 semi-final, coming from 12-points down to secure an unforgettable win thanks to Ian Madigan's last-kick penalty.

It is a reflection of the task facing the hosts that they will have just two players who started that night doing so again this evening, something that their head coach Richard Cockerill has spoken about this week.

"The side that goes out for us on Monday will be vastly different to the one that played last time, unfortunately," said the former Leicester Tigers man who has a staggering 23 players unavailable through injuries and Test commitments.

"It’s a shame for the competition because the last two or three times we’ve played Ulster it’s been very tight. They are missing some individuals but I think we’re missing 13 lads with Scotland. Kunavula is with Fiji, so there’s 14 guys who potentially would be in and around our squad.

“We just have to accept that’s the way the cards have fallen at this point. I’d love to be in Ulster’s position where you have a deep squad and bigger budgets and you lose five or six guys to the Test team. Those are the things I dream of - having only six players away with the Test squad. But we’ve just got to deal with it.

"People can criticise and say ‘you’re not playing well enough’ and it’s not good enough when you lose but if they say that they’re not taking it in the contest of who we’re playing and the circumstances we’re playing under. I can guarantee that I want to win more than anybody but there are some things you can’t control.”

Ulster aren't immune to such issues themselves and will be giving two players their debuts tonight. Much has already been written about Aaron Sexton, the former sprint sensation in the Academy ranks who appeared in a pre-season friendly while still in school. Less so, however, about Bradley Roberts who will be the replacement hooker this evening as he makes the jump from the the third tier of the All-Ireland League where he has been starring with Rainey Old Boys.

Can Ulster make it eight in a row with Europe now just around the corner?

Jonathan Bradley

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