Belfast Telegraph

Ulster facing a huge challenge

By Michael Sadlier

Now is probably a good time to dust down that familiar observation that 'no game is ever won on paper'.

It's certainly something that the Ulster management might just have alluded to as they prepare their rather callow squad to take on a fearsome-looking Leinster side tonight (5.30pm).

With its obvious leaning towards youthful exuberance, alongside a cadre of rather more experienced operators, this 23-man selection features 14 players who recently, and successfully, were part of the Ravens squad in their quarter-final grabbing British and Irish Cup game at Rotherham Titans.

Just how much of a leap it is to actually move seamlessly from the B&I Cup to the PRO12 League will be discovered soon enough, but Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin made it abundantly clear that showing his strongest hand twice in a week, with Munster coming to Ravenhill on Friday, is just not a possibility he, and his conditioning staff, were prepared to contemplate.

His Ireland internationals, bar Tom Court who benches tonight, are not with him this week through a combination of the IRFU's player management policy and the fact that Declan Kidney is also holding a national get-together.

Not having Stephen Ferris, Rory Best and Andrew Trimble on board for Dublin is just something McLaughlin has to live with but his decision to rest Ruan Pienaar, John Afoa and Stefan Terblanche - none of whom have seen much game time - alongside those who have played most of the season so far is one that still looks rather puzzling.

The Ulster coach maintains that it is more important to keep what is essentially a Ravens side playing together as it gives this team a greater continuity and feel for playing with each other.

However, he does admit that it is a bit of a risk to take on an experienced if also somewhat diluted Leinster outfit which has put together 11 consecutive wins in all competitions and includes an all Ireland front row in Cian Healy, Sean Cronin and Mike Ross as well as Eoin Reddan, Luke Fitzgerald and Shane Jennings all in harness.

"It's a bit of a gamble," McLaughlin said without fear of contradiction.

"We want to use our squad and we want to give our young guys a chance and we decided to keep our younger side together as they've been doing exceptionally well in the British and Irish Cup so they're now getting an opportunity," he added.

Even though Leinster coach Joe Schmidt is without Ireland players Rob Kearney, Jonathan Sexton, Leo Cullen, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip - while having chosen to go without Isa Nacewa - the Heineken Cup holders still look ominously potent with a more than useful bench which includes former Ulster player Isaac Boss as well as Richardt Strauss, Rhys Ruddock and Eoin O'Malley.

Ulster simply do not possess that strength in depth in their selection with four Academy players - James Simpson, Conor Joyce, Stuart Olding and Conor Gaston - sitting on McLaughlin's bench.

Academy players Peter Nelson, Michael Allen, Ali Birch and teenager Chris Farrell are all making their competitive debuts along with prop Callum Black.

Out half James McKinney has togged out before but only as a sub while Neil McComb finds himself in the unfamiliar position of blindside wing forward.

A heavy burden will rest on the shoulders of the core of experienced players who are out tonight.

Robbie Diack, Simon Danielli, Tim Barker, Lewis Stevenson, skipper Nigel Brady and Paul Marshall all know that when it comes to tough assignments this looks right up there.

"One of two things can happen when young guys get opportunities they weren't expecting," Marshall stated.

"Sometimes they'll be overawed and sometimes they'll come in and not care who they're playing against and get stuck in and take their opportunity," he said.

Indeed, Ulster's weakness just might also prove to be their strength. Leinster will probably not have amassed too much knowledge on this side and just may be slightly complacent.

Still, whatever way you look at it, this looks inescapably like a no-brainer result for Leinster.

Yet, having said that, since when were games won on paper?

Ulster: P Nelson; C Cochrane, M Allen, C Farrell, S Danielli; J McKinney, P Marshall; C Black, N Brady (capt), A Macklin; T Barker, L Stevenson; N McComb, A Birch, R Diack. Replacements: N Annett, J Cronin, T Court, J Simpson, C Joyce, I Porter, S Olding, C Gaston

Leinster: L Fitzgerald; D Kearney, F McFadden, G D'Arcy; F Carr; I Madigan, E Reddan; C Healy, S Cronin, M Ross; D Browne, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings (capt), L Auva'a. Replacements: R Strauss, J McGrath, J Hagan, S Sykes, R Ruddock, I Boss, E O'Malley, A Conway

Referee: Peter Fitzgibbon (IRFU)

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