Huge challenge but flanker is sure visitors can emulate Connacht feat
Who would have thought it was going to happen last weekend?
You know, Leinster losing a game, and at their RDS Arena fortress as well, while few would have ever reckoned Connacht would be the ones to do it.
As such, the pre-match volume surrounding tomorrow night’s meeting between last season’s Guinness PRO14 champions and Ulster, this campaign’s Conference A leaders, has been considerably turned up for this shortened league competition.
In effect, this visit to the RDS has all the feel of knockout rugby, though, as a rule, any trip to Dublin doesn’t augur well for Ulster. Win, though, and Ulster will stretch their already 10-point lead over Leinster — who admittedly have two games in hand — to the level where they can scent finishing top of the Conference and making this season’s final.
It’s a target that actually doesn’t feel out of reach but, of course, it’s not that straightforward. Ulster have won just the once when taking on Leinster in Dublin since way back in 1999 and that was nearly eight years ago now when Johann Muller et al held on for the result.
It’s a well-aired but still dreadful record both in league and knockout games against the southern neighbours, but it has to end sometime, so why not now with Leinster under pressure to perform after they have, well, lost a game?
Ulster flanker Matty Rea mulled it all over, though it still seems that he and the squad are smarting over their failure to comfortably see off a somewhat diluted Munster side at
Kingspan Stadium last Saturday, when to have banked a five-pointer would have been of even greater benefit after Connacht’s showing in Dublin.
He knows that anything even remotely resembling last weekend’s display — Ulster failed to score again after the 27th minute in their 15-10 win — just won’t do as Leinster seek to bin that unusual feeling of loss while also trying to stay strong in their bid to top the Conference and make another final.
“A wounded Leinster team will definitely be up for it and that’s a challenge for us,” said Rea. “It’s going to be one of the biggest challenges we’ll face all season.”
He could have continued in this vein, but Rea, with a black smudge under one eye which was probably collected against Munster, opted for more specific lines as Ulster go in search of continuing their 100 per cent PRO14 record and registering an 11th league win.
“Connacht put out a good model for us (to follow) and we have to go there with the same mindset,” said the 56-times-capped Ballymena man.
Putting more meat on the bone, he added: “We have to be clinical, play in the right parts of the pitch and not give them momentum or easy ‘ins’ to the game. That’s a massive thing.”
It will also be huge for Rea who, after six straight starts, found himself benched for Gloucester and Connacht, his strong showing in Galway doubtless assisting in his return to the starting side for Munster.
“There is no misunderstanding to how important it (this game) is,” he said.
“I know if we can go down there and beat Leinster then we’re in a good position to finish top, so we have that pressure and, as a group, we know what the game means to us.”
One loss suffered by Leinster certainly doesn’t mean they are there for the taking, but it does allow Ulster to travel with some added belief, though they will be drawing most of this from their own performances on the road and, doubtless, none more so than how they dug out a rare victory in Connacht.
“We’ve had confidence on the road and we have to take that, go down there and fire a shot,” said Rea. “For us, it’s massive that we go and show what we can do. We have to put our stamp on it (the game), and early.”
This, just might, be their time.
Meanwhile, Ulster’s Champions Cup opponents Gloucester have announced that full-back Kyle Moyle has agreed a permanent deal at Kingsholm.
Moyle initially joined the Gallagher Premiership club on a short-term arrangement from Championship side Cornish Pirates, but he has made a considerable impression with Gloucester and been involved in six of their seven games so far this season, including the dramatic 38-34 victory over Ulster before Christmas.
Gloucester head coach George Skivington said: “Kyle has come in and grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
“He has been excellent in the Championship for a number of years, and he has not looked out of place in the No.15 jersey for Gloucester Rugby over the last few months. He is a player that is eager to make his mark and keep progressing.”