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Ulster ready to address woeful Leinster record

New Year offers fresh hope of avoiding familiar fate

By Michael Sadlier

It will hardly come as a surprise to discover that the recent record looks pretty darn shabb.

In the last 12 competitive meetings with Leinster, including the particularly grim memory of the Heineken Cup final of 2012 at Twickenham, the outcomes have seen the southern province get the better of Ulster 10 times with four of those defeats being at knockout stages of competitions in consecutive years - a PRO12 semi-final in 2011, then a European cup final 12 months later followed by 2013's PRO12 final and then last May's semi-final.

But dig a bit deeper and it gets worse. When it comes to challenging Leinster on their own turf, as Ulster are having to do on Saturday in their first outing of 2015, well, this resembles something as close to a mission impossible as you are likely to find.

Since coming away from Dublin with a victory in 1999, Ulster have won just once in the Republic's capital and that came in March 2013 when the side, then coached by Mark Anscombe dug in and, somehow, held on to memorably triumph.

And though this is clearly an adequate expression of where Leinster have been over the last few seasons, it also reflects badly on Ulster who have so eagerly aspired, and yet failed, to so far emerge as a defining force in both their domestic league and in Europe by bringing back the essential commodity of silverware to the Kingspan sideboard.

The upshot is that any time Leinster emerge on the horizon, whether it is in a regulation PRO12 encounter, or in a winner takes all shootout, there is that inescapable feeling that Ulster will struggle with the terrain and that the ultimate result will go against them.

A decent enough argument can be made that good fortune has not been their ally, Tom Court's red card in last May's last home game of the season was as much a game-changer as had been the case the month before when Jared Payne was given his marching orders in the quarter-final with Saracens.

And in the PRO12 final from the year before, Isaac Boss clearly made up his own law regarding being able to remove the ball when it was situated safely in the opposition's scrum and was allowed to get away with it.

Having said that, Robbie Diack, in the same game, should have scored for Ulster after getting over the Leinster line notwithstanding Jonathan Sexton's wrap-up tackle.

At least Ulster have been nudging closer to their southern rivals when it comes to the final scoreboard with just two points separating the sides in last May's regulation game (it ended 22-20) in Belfast and then four (13-9) at the later PRO12 play-off, but what has really mattered, of course, is that Ulster have still been losing.

It's difficult to escape the notion that, basically, high quality teams deal with adversity to come back stronger and, generally speaking, if you play well enough you normally win.

Ulster can have few complaints really with the thumping 42-14 defeat in May 2012's Heineken Cup final at Twickenham, and their virtually identical 42-13 PRO12 annihilation in Dublin five months before that when then coach Brian McLaughlin sent out a shadow side for the derby game, being particularly low moments.

And then, during Anscombe's tenure we actually managed to see something fairly remarkable in that an extremely rare double was bagged over the southern neighbours when Leinster were beaten in both regulation PRO12 games in season 2012-13.

Indeed, after overturning the then Joe Schmidt-coached side in December 2012 at what was then still called Ravenhill, Ulster secured a wholly unexpected 22-18 PRO12 victory at the RDS in March 2013, which was quite an occasion as it represented their first taste of victory in Dublin after 14 years of missing out.

Indeed it was that victory in Dublin that resonated the most and the memory of the game when Ulster staged a backs-to-the-wall rearguard to keep a strong Leinster selection - with Cian Healy, Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip on board - from crossing their line with some last-ditch defending from the 14-man visitors, Jared Payne had been sin-binned during a frantic injury time with Ulster besieged on their line, somehow keeping the blue tide at bay and permitting Johann Muller an unusual moment of emotion as he found the strength to repeatedly jump for joy at the final whistle.

The sheer guts and determination shown that day - and how Leinster were hurting after it as well, though they did get their revenge two months later at the PRO12 final - will have been evoked this week by those who were there, with Rory Best already referring to his own personal experience of just how much it takes for an Ulster side to get the better of Leinster in front of their home crowd.

Ulster's skipper was there in 2013 when they held on in those desperately scrambling injury time minutes to overturn their hosts in Dublin. More of that dogged spirit, along with some much-needed composure and accuracy, will be needed in spades come Saturday and, even though Leinster are hardly in the greatest form right now and look a tad vulnerable being fifth in the league, they will not be ready to roll over and allow Ulster to bag only their second competitive win in Dublin 4 since the turn of the century.

Yet Neil Doak and co sure could do with bucking the trend against the side who have hurt them more than any other when it comes to knockout rugby.

As usual, the odds are stacked high against it happening - but it will be worth watching.

Belfast Telegraph

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