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Ulster's growing Leinster contingent will be relishing quarter-final against home province

Leinster-born Marty Moore (left) and Eric O'Sullivan (right) will be hoping to upset their native province this weekend when they line-up either side of Rory Best.
Leinster-born Marty Moore (left) and Eric O'Sullivan (right) will be hoping to upset their native province this weekend when they line-up either side of Rory Best.

By Rúaidhrí O'Connor

When Rory Best of Poyntzpass, Co Armagh, lifts his arms and grasps for his props at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, he'll find Eric O'Sullivan from Brittas to his left and Marty Moore from Leixlip on his right.

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Depending on selection, Alan O'Connor from Skerries may be providing ballast from the second-row as John Cooney of Gonzaga feeds the scrum and Jordi Murphy of Blackrock, by way of Barcelona, controls it at the base.

Ulster have looked south in search of steel in recent years and their shopping in Leinster waters has proved to be a profitable enterprise.

Whereas once their dressing room was almost exclusively the preserve of locals, with a peppering of South African and Kiwi stars, now there is a strong Dublin twang to the conversation.

There is no hard border in Irish rugby these days. All three of Leinster's rivals have profited from the riches of their wider talent pool and Ulster are no different.

Apart from Murphy and, to a lesser extent, Moore, the Dubs occupying the away dressing room at Lansdowne Road this week all left in search of opportunity, having either been over-looked by their home province or struggled for selection.

So they headed north, where they've been welcomed with open arms at the other end of the M1.

Next season they may well be joined by Jack McGrath; Dave Shanahan (Belvedere) and Nick Timoney (Blackrock) may be on the bench this weekend; Greg Jones (St Andrews) and Jack Regan (Offaly) are up and coming players and Corkmen Clive Ross and Ian Nagle are in the wider squad. Nagle can't feature this week as he's on loan from Leinster.

When Ulster last played a European quarter-final, against Saracens in 2014, they featured eight locals, three New Zealanders (one of whom was Irish qualified in Jared Payne), two South Africans and Irish qualified pair Dan Tuohy and Tom Court.

In January, when they came from behind to beat Leicester Tigers and secure their spot in the knockouts for the first time since then, five of the team were locals. Four hail from Leinster, four are players of Irish heritage recruited from England and New Zealand, Louis Ludik is an Irish-qualified project player and Marcel Coetzee is their Springbok marquee signing.

Whereas five years ago they had four players who couldn't play for Ireland, now they have just one. It is IRFU policy in action.

Ulster have been working on improving their production line to ensure a greater flow from their own clubs and schools to the top team, but for now they are reliant on Irish-qualified players from elsewhere.

And, once they put in a shift, the locals don't mind.

"I love to see home-grown players playing for Ulster, but the nature of the game and the talent pool that we have has meant we've had to look elsewhere," recently retired Ulster and Ireland flanker Chris Henry said.

"Ulster have done a good job of picking the right people.

"What a statement for Jordi (Murphy) especially to come up, it's huge. Marty Moore is finding some good form. We've always had open arms to any player that comes to us.

"It's important to get the right fit; like, Alan O'Connor has been an absolute rock for us. Understated, like when we played away from home against Dragons he was the captain.

"I've done that before, it's a horrible job because to get the team motivated is tough work, but Ulster were fantastic and Al was brilliant in that leadership role.

"Of course we want to produce our own and it's something that Ulster have to put resources into, to get the Academy and schools going.

"But in the interim, if someone like Jordi feels it's the right decision for him to get in the Irish team and wants to come up here and make Ulster a better place and buy into it, then that's brilliant. I'm all for it.

"Ulster is probably better known for our players not wanting to move to any of the other provinces because historically we've had strong family connections and to a lot of guys getting on an airplane was something of a shock.

"So, people coming to us - absolutely. Especially players like Dave Shanahan, Al O'Connor, they haven't come up as established names, they've come up and joined the Academy.

"Greg Jones is there, he's a workaholic - the fact they've come up, realised they've been given a chance and are trying to make the place better, that's what it's all about."

This week, those players will be relishing their trip home to take on the European champions.

Only 12 months ago Murphy was playing a leading role in Leinster's run to the final, having already announced his decision to move north in search of greater opportunity.

His fellow Dubliners in the dressing room will all have their own motivation for putting in a performance, although Ulster coach Dan McFarland is playing down that factor.

"No, I don't think so. Anyone who sits in a meeting room in Kingspan, or sits and watches training, or into the changing room after a win, apart from the odd accent you just wouldn't know," he said on Saturday.

"The 'Ulsterness' of the guys comes from their commitment to this province. I reckon they demonstrate that so clearly in the way that they play and the amount of effort they put in and their commitment to being the best they can be.

"There doesn't need to be an added motivation or to seek that out, you're playing a quarter-final of the best club competition in the world. Every person that pulls on the Ulster jersey next week, their hearts will be beating, their blood will be pumping."

The northern province are 11/2 outsiders for the game and have major injury issues. Iain Henderson is in a race to be fit after hurting his knee while playing for Ireland against France, while Will Addison is struggling with a back problem and looks unlikely to make it.

Still, a one-off game in front of a sell-out crowd will whet the appetite.

"I think you have to pay them a lot of respect, and you want to pay them a lot of respect. What they've done consistently over the last number of years is impressive," McFarland said of Leinster.

"They're well coached, there's a lot of guys who work very hard for their province and when the chips are down they produce the goods. For us, that's a brilliant challenge."

It's one the former boys in blue in his dressing room will be relishing.

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