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Ulster relishing a battle against high-flying Leinster

 

By Jonathan Bradley

One hour into Sunday's Champions Cup win over Ulster, La Rochelle's Vincent Pelo stood on the touchline awaiting his introduction.

He would enter the fray in place of Uini Atonio, one French international behemoth for another.

While the visiting pack had largely been holding up in the face of immense pressure and superior opposition until the dam broke in the final quarter, it was another sign of the depth of forward power possessed by Europe's top sides.

And with Leinster visiting Kingspan Stadium on Saturday (6.30pm), Ulster don't even have the solace of chalking it up to something you don't face every week.

While Leo Cullen's men have not won in Belfast since they beat a 14-man Ulster in 2014, their depth in the forward positions remains the envy of the Guinness PRO14, not least those residing in BT6.

Take, for example, the northern province's injury plight in the back-row.

Having lost Marcell Coetzee for the second season in a row, it seems likely that Les Kiss' squad will never be the side they could have been with the burly Springbok tearing off the back of the scrum.

Leinster, in contrast, have been without the previously indestructible Jamie Heaslip since before last season's Six Nations. No matter, Jack Conan and Rhys Ruddock are playing better than ever.

Having suffered what would seem a devastating blow with the loss of Josh van der Flier for up to two months, they are expected to turn to the fit-again Dan Leavy, a substitute in their win over Glasgow, and Sean O'Brien this weekend. Not bad replacements.

It's easy to see what Ulster captain Rory Best meant when he spoke of his province not being "a conveyor belt like Leinster" earlier this week.

Ulster's scrum coach Aaron Dundon knows the culture of the RDS Arena as well as anyone in the camp, the former hooker having played there for six years alongside plenty of the men who will make the journey north on Saturday.

"They have a big, big squad and a lot of depth, so no matter who plays they get the same sort of performance," he said.

"Guys come in and out and there is always the same performance and clarity there.

"They have got some class players throughout most of their team, nearly all internationals. That adds a lot of experience. They are a good, good outfit at the moment, there's some good coaches there and they play a good brand of rugby with a good mix of young and experienced players.

"We know who they have and who they are most likely going to play with.

"It is going to be a really strong team they are bringing up and the boys in the squad know each other.

"Some of them are obviously international team-mates, so it is going to be a big, big battle and one I am looking forward to."

With Ulster sweating on the fitness of first-choice props Kyle McCall and Wiehahn Herbst - although arguably the feared absence of usual No.9 John Cooney and his deputy Paul Marshall is of greater concern - it is hardly ideal preparation for the scrum challenge set to be posed by Dundon's former team-mates, the Lions pair of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong.

When both made their first senior starts, Dundon was alongside them in the same matchday squads.

"Furlong is quite young for a tight-head but he is a bit of a freak," he said. "He came up through the Academy and I remember he struggled.

"But he is a farmer boy, he kept at it and he has got a little bit bigger, learned a lot off Mike Ross and that is really coming through now.

"Jack is the same, he is a class player.

"They both deserve their Lions calls and I hope both of them play because it would be good to see where we are going up against those two boys, it would really challenge us at scrum time."

Tight-head prop Rodney Ah You - who has a PRO12 medal from his Connacht days thanks to a win over Leinster - figures to make a third start of the campaign if Herbst is unable to feature, but feels his side's scrum, which held firm on its own ball, showed signs of progress against La Rochelle.

"I feel our set-piece made a step forward from some of the stuff we have been trying to work on," he said.

"It was one of the heaviest packs I've come up against but our forward pack did well against them.

"It's just too bad the score-line didn't reflect our game."

The Ulster front-row is at least expected to be boosted by a first start of the season for Best after the man who is set for a 200th provincial cap made his comeback from a hamstring complaint off the bench in La Rochelle.

"It is awesome to have Bestie back in the squad, especially playing alongside him," added Ah You.

"It helps my game to be better as well.

"He will pull you into line if you are not doing your job properly, he is a natural leader and someone that everybody in Ulster respects."

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