Yes or no: Our writers debate whether Ulster can see off Leinster for a seismic European shock
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Ulster will face off against Leinster on Saturday hoping they can defy the odds and seal a spot in the European Champions Cup semi-finals.
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So are they going to do it?
Our rugby writers Jonathan Bradley and Michael Sadlier are of differing opinions...
Yes: Jonathan Bradley feels visitors can spring surprise, given some of champions' big players are off form
Supporters of rugby in Ulster can be an admirably contrary breed. Ask them their side's prospects at home against some PRO14 cellar-dweller in a run-of-the-mill league game and you'll often be met with a concerned look or two, maybe even a foreboding mention of defeat in a corresponding fixture 12 years or so ago.
Tell them that they've to play the European champions away from home in a city where they haven't tasted victory in six years...as 17-point underdogs no less and you get something akin to a quote from that 1994 piece of high cinema 'Dumb and Dumber'.
"So, you're telling me there's a chance?"
And, when it comes to Saturday's game, of course there is.
The bookies and pundits have had their say and the hosts are clearly the favourites, as they should be, but Ulster have shown in the past - Toulouse in 1998/99 and Munster in 2011/12 - that the underdog can have its day.
Playing in Dublin, in a venue they call home on at least two occasions a year, is naturally a huge advantage to Leinster, but an away side triumphs in the last eight roughly one out of every four tries, one a season as it were.
And while Ulster enter into this weekend as the longest of odds to be this year's shock, it's important to remember how both sides came to be where they are in this competition.
Ulster qualified initially as the 20th of 20 teams, requiring a play-off victory over Ospreys to claim their place in a scenario that produced a devilishly difficult pool draw alongside two of last season's semi-finalists, Racing 92 and Scarlets, as well as two-time winners Leicester Tigers.
While two of those sides are enduring below-par campaigns, to emerge from such a group showed the truth in what many a past Ulster coach has preached - when the side are at or close to full strength they can be a match for the top teams. While there are injury doubts remaining, and absentees in the shape of Louis Ludik and Will Addison, the presence of all Dan McFarland's Irish front-liners and marquee import Marcell Coetzee should give cause for hope.
Their season is already a success, and the combination of playing with house money and the motivation to finally plant one on the chin of their own schoolyard bully could prove a heady brew.
Leinster's passage to the last eight came from a pool containing Toulouse as well as mid-table Premiership sides Wasps and Bath, the latter of whom gave them a real game in The Rec. Toulouse went one better, beating the boys in blue over at the Stade Ernest-Wallon, with the returning Irish press corps making note of how the hosts - four-time winners of this competition themselves - exuberantly celebrated their victory at the final whistle.
It was clear that day that Leinster would have to deal with a target on their backs all year.
Everybody raises their game to face the number one.
It's an idea that perhaps Ireland have struggled with ever since the day they toppled the All Blacks in November and Steve Hansen departed Dublin with a wry reminder that it's tough at the top.
So it proved during the Six Nations where, while they were far from alone, Joe Schmidt's core Leinster contingent were decidedly off colour.
Furthermore, Robbie Henshaw, Josh van der Flier and Devin Toner picked up injuries. With Sexton, Furlong and co in 2018 form, nobody would give Ulster a snowball's chance in Hades.
But the evidence of the last eight weeks offers Ulster increased optimism of an upset.
Can they do it? Yes. Will they? Perhaps not, but I'm telling you there's a chance.
No: Michael Sadlier reckons that a storm will hit the Aviva on Saturday, unleashed by the boys in blue
It sits in the corner of an upstairs room and simply gathers dust. Every so often I catch a glimpse of it and remember just why it has still got residency.
Said item is a blue flag wrapped around a while pole and, when unfurled, has a very large logo with the words ‘Leinster Rugby’ running along the bottom.
I don’t really know how long I’ve had it as it could have been in 2016 for the PRO12 semi-final defeat or maybe the one two years earlier.
The flag might have even come my way from the final of 2013 — remember that one when Ulster had secured the ‘home’ tie but still ended up playing in Dublin against, well, you know who.
Anyway, this flag was not a purchase but had been planted on the bonnet of my car by some wag of a Leinster fan after one of those forgettable days out at the RDS. Why I kept it I can’t really say.
But one day I’m going to dump it and this short but symbolic ceremony will take place the next time Ulster score more points than Leinster down in Dublin, whether it be knockout game or the usual PRO14 trip.
The thing is, I don’t expect the lowering of the Leinster flag into the appropriate bin will be happening in the wake of this Saturday evening’s events at the Aviva Stadium.
This isn’t particularly easy to write but, let’s just get on with the remit. Leinster have too much firepower, too much strength in depth, too much belief, too much pedigree and too much… I could go on.
Ulster will be hoping that Leinster’s overwhelming strength is also their greatest weakness and that the southern province have already allowed small thoughts to creep in about already being in the last four.
A slightly off-colour Leinster, a version of the one which contrived to lose at Toulouse would be ideal, but then Johnny Sexton doesn’t really do much in the way of complacency and neither does James Ryan.
Throw in the fact that Sexton will be even more angry than usual after Ireland’s limp effort in Cardiff, never mind what Ryan, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Sean O’Brien, Rob Kearney, Jack Conan, Jordan Larmour and Garry Ringrose might be bringing with them to the Aviva, and it has the makings of some storm which could be unleashed on Ulster.
And if you thought that the loss of Josh van der Flier would hurt them, well, up steps the likely returning Dan Leavy to bring his physicality back to the fold. Admittedly, Devin Toner’s absence doesn’t look great for their lineout organisation but Ryan will step in here. So, could Ulster’s first presence in Europe’s knockout stages for five years look any more unforgiving?
Hardly. Taking on the European champions at the Aviva Stadium would be a mammoth challenge for anyone, let alone Ulster who drag all manner of unwanted baggage with them when it comes to crossing the border and attempting to face down those clad in blue.
Having to play Leinster again not quite three months since albeit a watered-down Ulster selection were handed a 40-7 filleting in the PRO14 doesn’t exactly instil notions of confidence either.
Not against this Leinster side, who have already wrapped up Conference B in this season’s PRO14 and, until last weekend’s defeat to Edinburgh, had only lost three games all season when taking both the league and Europe into consideration.
Neither does Ulster’s lamentably woeful record in the Republic’s capital.
Ah well, at least it isn’t at the RDS.
It would be nice to ditch the flag in an appropriate manner, but it’s not likely to be going anywhere this weekend.
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