By Tadhg Peavoy
Unfortunately, following European Cup quarter-final reversals, both Ulster and Leinster can only win Pro12 silverware this season.
One might have hoped that at this stage of the season both sides could have used this tie as a warm-up before they clashed in the Euro final on 24 May at Millennium Stadium.
Alas, that repeat of 2012’s final was not to be.
Part of the reason Ulster failed to emerge from their home quarter-final with Saracens was Jared Payne’s red card for a dangerous charge on Alex Goode.
He returns to the Ulster line-up in the key second centre position, a move which will certainly strengthen the Ulstermen.
Following Ospreys's shock defeat to Zebre last night, Ulster just need one point to ensure their qualification for the Pro12 play-offs, and they'll want to get the job done against Leinster tonight rather than having to travel to Munster in their final regular season match looking to get points.
The first thing Ulster need to do to put themselves in with a shot of victory is sort out a porous defence, which leaked three tries in defeat to Glasgow Warriors last time out. If they don’t get that element right then they’ll get beaten by Leinster – simple as.
If they do get that right, then the task is to use Paddy Jackson to unleash the attacking talent of a backline that includes Luke Marshall, Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble.
However, wins over Leinster rarely come easy, and the Lions claimed an away scalp in this fixture last season on a 24-18 scoreline.
This season, Ulster have been superb at home, losing just once in the Pro12 to Glasgow in their opening season fixture, highlighting just how difficult they are to beat on their own turf.
The bad news for Ulster is that Matt O’Connor has picked a very strong Leinster side. No surprises there as his team are looking to claim an away win and keep their five-point lead at the top of the table heading into their last regular season tie with Edinburgh. Home advantage is key and they’ll want to keep it.
Gordon D’Arcy comes back into the centre alongside Brian O’Driscoll, with Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney and Zane Kirchner filling the back three slots. Ian Madigan’s selection at ten suggests that Leinster are prepared to have a go at this Ulster team and spread the ball whenever they can.
Up front, Cian Healy and Martin Moore will fancy their chances against Tom Court and Andrew Warwick in the scrum, and if they get a significant advantage, that could be a crucial
edge for Leinster in what will likely be a one-score game.
Both engine rooms and back-rows are packed full of talent and it’s hard to see a major advantage from 4-8 in either side.
Crucially, however, Leinster look to have a stronger bench, with Richardt Strauss, Jack McGrath, Mike Ross, Leo Cullen, Jordi Murphy, Jimmy Gopperth and Luke Fitzgerald to call on.
Ulster name Nick Annett, Calum Black, Adam Macklin, Dan Tuohy, Sean Doyle, Michael Heaney, James McKinney and Darren Cave on their bench.
The southern side look that little bit stronger in the impact division, and that might just tip the game in their favour.
Verdict: Leinster to win by five.
Ulster: 15 Ricky Andrew, 14 Andrew Trimble, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Luke Marshall, 11 Tommy Bowe, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 1 Tom Court, 2 Rob Herring, 3 Andrew Warwick, 4 Johann Muller (captain), 5 Iain Henderson, 6 Roger Wilson, 7 Chris Henry, 8 Nick Williams.
Replacements: 16 Nick Annett, 17 Calum Black, 18 Adam Macklin, 19 Dan Tuohy, 20 Sean Doyle, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 James McKinney, 23 Darren Cave.
Leinster: 15 Rob Kearney, 14: Zane Kirchner, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Dave Kearney, 10 Ian Madigan, 9 Isaac Boss, 1 Cian Healy, 2 Sean Cronin, 3 Martin Moore, 4 Devin Toner, 5 Mike McCarthy, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 7 Shane Jennings, 8 Jamie Heaslip (captain).
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Mike Ross, 19 Leo Cullen, 20 Jordi Murphy, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Jimmy Gopperth, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.