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Dan really desperate to return for Ireland

Tuohy chomping at bit for action and Ulster 'friendly' is his shop window

By Niall Crozier

Although on paper just friendlies, there are some fixtures which by dint of the degree of rivalry, pride and passion involved make a nonsense of that status.

Any Ulster-Leinster meeting is an example.

Four o'clock this afternoon at Tallaght Stadium – home of Shamrock Rovers FC in Dublin 24 on the fair city's south side – will see the resumption of hostilities in what is Irish rugby's longest-running inter-provincial war.

With Ulster and Leinster providing most of Ireland's senior squad these days, Joe Schmidt will be a particularly interested spectator. There is a World Cup starting in 53 weeks' time, for which reason province versus province clashes like this one will provide players with the perfect opportunity to steal a march on their opposite numbers.

While many of both sides' marquee players are missing today, there will be sufficient of them on show to ensure a contest deserving of that noun and befitting this fixture's history.

Ulster's Dan Tuohy is one such figure. Having played in the first two of last season's Six Nations matches, he broke his arm against Wales and missed the final three games of the series as a result.

A subsequent broken hand, sustained while on Ulster duty against Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital, was another untimely blow to his prospects of making the Ireland party for Argentina and, although he recovered in time to face Leinster in the PRO12 semi-final, that too ended in disappointment, the hosts and holders having won 13-9 at the RDS.

"March, April, May sucked, basically," is Tuohy's personal recollection of the closing months of the 2013-14 campaign.

Today is his first outing since that May 17 defeat by Leinster, so he is looking forward to facing them again.

"I don't really know how long I'm going to get. It could be 40 minutes, it could be 60. If it's 40 then I'll try to make the most of those minutes as possible," he said.

"When you're in pre-season you're chomping at the bit after seven or eight weeks, so I wanted to play against Exeter just to get the minutes in me."

He was not used last weekend so, turning his attention to this evening's challenge he said: "I know the result (in a pre-season friendly) is irrelevant and obviously the performance is more important. But it still is good to go down to Leinster and win.

"When you lose you go, 'Ah, it was only a pre-season game'. But you'd like to have won that game at the weekend – and we should have.

"So it will be the same for us this weekend. We'd like to go down and win; it gives you an extra confidence boost. It will be tough down there, very similar to what it will be at the start (of the Guinness PRO12 in which Ulster play Scarlets in Llannelli a week hence).

With the exception of Robbie Diack, Ulster are minus the players who were in Argentina with Ireland – skipper Rory Best, Rob Herring, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave and Luke Marshall – but today's line-up includes other Irish internationals who, like Tuohy, are anxious to play themselves back into the reckoning.

Those in that bracket in the starting line-up are Craig Gilroy, Paul Marshall, Ian Humphreys and captain Roger Wilson, while Declan Fitzpatrick will be keen to get a run off the bench.

But the combination which, one suspects, will be of particular interest to Schmidt is the Stuart Olding-Jared Payne midfield partnership.

New Zealander Payne is now Irish-qualified and Ulster coach Les Kiss's inclusion of him at 13 is highly significant now that Brian O'Driscoll has retired.

For Olding – still just 21 – this is a very welcome return having missed most of the 2013-14 campaign after rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee while playing for the Ulster Ravens against Connacht Eagles on November 15.

He has the potential to become a real Irish rugby superstar and a successor to the legendary Leinster hero Brian O'Driscoll in that role.

"Stu has looked really, really sharp in training over the last few days," Tuohy revealed. "He's been training fully in the squad for the past three weeks after his injury. He's put on quite a bit of muscle, actually – he's a little barrel!

"Sharp feet, sharp hands, tough in the tackle – he's a cracking player."

Leinster have named a strong 15, captained by Lions loose forward Sean O'Brien who packs down in the middle of the back row where he is flanked by Jack Conan and Shane Jennings.

Young hooker Bryan Byrne is one of only three starters retained from the side which faced Northampton a week ago and he has Ireland first-choice props Cian Healy and Mike Ross either side.

Mike McCarthy is joined in the second row by Kevin McLaughlin. Behind the scrum Luke McGrath partners Jimmy Gopperth, with highly-rated pair Noel Reid and Brendan Macken forming the centre partnership.

The back three are Zane Kirchner, Fergus McFadden and Darragh Fanning.

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