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Leinster v Ulster: Murphy and Conan relishing chance to lock horns in crucial back-row battle

Leinster v Ulster, Champions Cup: Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 5.45pm

Old pals: Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy with the Lansdowne Cup on Ireland duty
Old pals: Jack Conan and Jordi Murphy with the Lansdowne Cup on Ireland duty
Jordi Murphy in action for Ulster
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

The back-row battle will be one of the most keenly contested aspects of Saturday's eagerly anticipated all-Irish Champions Cup quarter-final.

Given that Leinster love nothing more than to hold onto the ball for huge portions of the 80 minutes and pick off their opposition with an assassin-like accuracy, and Ulster coach Dan McFarland is known to place a huge weight upon the relationship between his side's ruck speed and their performance level, it's no stretch to say it could be the most telling aspect of the big game.

If Ulster are to have any hope of securing a big upset, it almost goes without saying that Marcell Coetzee, Jordi Murphy and Sean Reidy need to seize the upper hand over Jack Conan, Dan Leavy and one of Sean O'Brien and Rhys Ruddock.

Yet it's a tete-a-tete that could have looked so different. Murphy will be in white, Conan in blue but it could easily have been the other way around.

It was back in the days when Les Kiss was the side's Director of Rugby that the province pitched a move north to Conan only for the player to opt to continue trying to breakthrough the back-row logjam at the RDS.

A few years later and Murphy looked set to reach the same decision only for his omission from Joe Schmidt's November Ireland squad of 2017 to spark a career-altering choice.

Ironically, Murphy's rich vein of subsequent form saw him finally get the regular game time he craved in the biggest of contests, including each knockout round of last season's run to the European title.

Having left such a winning environment behind, as well of course as his boyhood club, Murphy says he always envisaged playing in games like this for Ulster.

"I'm really looking forward to getting stuck in," he said of the last-eight clash against his former team-mates. "I wasn't able to play in (the previous PRO14 meeting) but I'm dying to get a game now.

"It was one of the things I was definitely looking forward to when I decided I was going to be moving up here.

"Knockout rugby in Europe is very exciting and to be doing it with a young new group, a new coach and new staff this year is everything that I came here to do.

"It's just great that it's on such a big stage and back in the Aviva, where I have some pretty fond memories - and I'm hoping to make a few more."

While he was back in by the time of the PRO14 final victory, Conan was the man kept on the bench by Murphy in the latter stages of the Champions Cup run a year ago and admits he has an "extra point to prove" this weekend.

"I wasn't playing great rugby at the time, I had just come back from an injury so I was lucky to be involved in that semi-final and the final," he remembered.

"I probably underperformed at times. My body wasn't where it needed to be against the Ospreys and then I finally got back for the Connacht game and that was obviously a poor performance all round.

"I don't think anyone would have looked at that and said, 'Oh, he deserves to be in there'.

"It was disappointing for me not to feature in those big games as much as I would have liked to but I think I rectified that by the end of the season getting the start for the semi and the final and then obviously going on to win the PRO14 with the lads.

"Jordi, to be fair, is a top performer and he was class in those big games for us, especially in the quarter, semi and final of Europe.

"We were looking at clips earlier and I saw that I wasn't involved and it brought it all back to me, how disappointing it is when you are not in the position that you want to be in and you are watching your mates go out there and you are not given the opportunity.

"So I think I have an extra point to prove this weekend because I didn't feature in a lot of those big games in the latter part of last year."

While Irish derbies are always familiar affairs, Conan and his Leinster cohorts could hardly know Murphy better.

"It is a massive challenge for us up against Jordi who has such an in-depth knowledge of the culture and the structures here," Conan added.

"He will be well aware of how we want to play the game and how we want to implement our game plan on Saturday.

"That in itself is a massive challenge and so is trying to negate his huge influence, especially early on so we can get into our flow."

Murphy isn't the only back-rower that Leinster are wary of, however, with Conan also noting the importance of Coetzee.

The influential Springbok missed most of his first two seasons in an Ulster jersey thanks to injury but has been making up for lost time of late.

He was arguably the province's best player over the first five months of the season and, while he was slowed by a hamstring injury in recent weeks, he made a typically impactful return to the starting side in last weekend's win over Southern Kings.

"Coetzee being back for Ulster the last few months has been a massive turning point. I've never met him but just watching him play he is an incredible athlete," said Conan.

"He is a big, strong guy and unbelievably confrontational and direct. He is a real leader for that pack and stepped forward massively the last few months. He is a quality operator."

Murphy is equally cautious of the opposition but believes Ulster's recent form - including 21 points from the last 25 available in the PRO14 - offers reason for hope of what would be a substantial upset.

"Leinster have quality across the park," he said. "They are European champions for a reason and they won a double last year, which is historic enough, even for them.

"I think it's hard to put a finger on anything as they have quality all the way through the forward pack, with boys like Tadgh Furlong and James Ryan who are coming back in now after playing well for Ireland.

"Then, with some of the threats they have in the backs, like young Jordan Larmour and James Lowe mixed in with a lot of experience, it's going to be a huge challenge.

"But you only have to look at us four or five games ago. We were fifth in the league, in a dogfight with two or three points between a lot of teams. We've come out of five games with a total of 21 points, so that just shows the kind of attitude this team has.

"It's put us in a better position in the league, up to second, with only a couple of games to go. The job isn't done yet by far, but it shows you the character, especially with a few boys in and out on international duty. We knew we had a lot of work to do, and the boys put it in."

They'll need more of the same and then some.

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