Ulster need to defy the odds against Leinster to sustain their Heineken Champions Cup ambitions

Dan McFarland cautiously optimistic ahead of huge challenge against Leo Cullen’s side on Saturday

Dan McFarland came across an external mathematical equation that quantified Ulster’s chances of causing an upset when they take on Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup round of 16 clash at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.

He shrugged and smiled when pointing out that a bookmaker had Leinster at even money to win the tournament, that’s four consecutive wins starting at the weekend, with Ulster priced at 100/1 to try and achieve the same feat.

It’s quite a discrepancy in outlook and expectation, the numbers stark but it’s only a paper appraisal. Ulster won’t be cowed, they know what it’s like to do something that few have managed, namely, to beat Leinster on a couple of occasions last season, including a victory in Dublin.

Those games were in the United Rugby Championship (URC) but if they want a more direct correlation, then they can dredge up the remnants of their heartbreaking 21-18 European quarter-final defeat to Leinster at the Aviva Stadium in 2019, a match they could and should have won.


On a week like this nothing is off the table when it comes to searching for a mental or physical edge; you take it where you can get it; the good, the bad and the ugly can each serve to inspire.

Ulster welcome back four internationals from Ireland’s Grand Slam campaign, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Herring, Tom O’Toole and Kieran Treadwell, while they have no injury concerns from a bruising victory over the Bulls last weekend.

McFarland spent Monday morning doling out good and bad news when it came to team selection for the weekend. The rest of the week is all about fine-tuning and tweaking the game plan and ensuring that the players are primed.

Ulster’s head coach admitted that the primary focus must be internal, alighting on what his team need to be rather than become mired in or swamped by Leinster’s rugby virtues. Not that he’s oblivious. He ventured: “It’s the biggest challenge in club rugby in the world in my opinion.

“In terms of the team being ready, we had a good Six Nations period. We came out against the Bulls and beat practically a team that beat Leinster in the (URC) semi-final last year. We made a bit of hard going of it early on but came through a very physical encounter. We’re in a pretty good place going into this game.

“They’ve got a selection from a massive chunk of guys who have just won a Grand Slam, so most people say that it’s unlikely Ulster are going to win but that’s not how we approach it.

“We approach it in that’s on us to put in the best performance we possibly can, be as physical as we possibly can and make every moment of the game a contest against them and if we’re able to do that consistently then the chips will fall as they’ll fall; we can’t control how they play.

“We can only influence the game by the way we play and that’s what we’ll be totally focused on. When we get it right, we’re a very good team and we’ll need to get it right.”

Ulster have won five of their last six matches, evidence that they have recovered from a speed wobble in early December that threatened to put the kibosh on a great start to the season, one that began by losing a 19-point lead and the match to a 14-man Leinster team at the RDS.

A poor run of results ensued but the group have shown character to recover, make the knockout stage of the Champions Cup and guarantee a top-four place in the URC. So how do you beat Leinster? McFarland said: “Leinster’s heartbeat is their gain-line and their lightning-quick ball. If you let them have that, or if they’re able to impose that, then you’re going to struggle in the game.

“That’s the bottom line, it’s not rocket science. We’ve managed to slow it down in past games, but you have to do it consistently. They are going to score tries against you, they’ll score tries against anyone. The territory game is really important, they’re smart, they’ve a really good kicking, kick-chase game.

“They’re very much an error-free team at the back. The pressure that comes from the territory game and your ability to create your own gain-line and slow down their ball, it starts and stops with that.”

Ulster can’t be single-faceted in their focus in simply trying to stop Leinster. McFarland explained: “If you’re not able to put pressure on them in multiple ways, they are going to find an answer. If we chose one way to stop them, it’s not going to do it.

“We have to find a way to create momentum for ourselves off the back of any good defence that we have by being good in attack. It gives them something else to think about. How easy is that? Well, it happens their defence is the best in the league as well. You’ve got to be smart. There have been teams that have been able to put them under pressure but not many teams have.”

That’s the nub of the challenge for Ulster on Saturday.

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer