Ulster Rugby v Leinster Rugby


Who’d have thought it; Ulster assured of Guinness PRO14 play-off rugby with a game to spare?! EYES FOCUSED ON THE PRIZE

against Racing 92, Leicester and against the talented Scarlets in Champions Cup and in the PRO14. This evening, after a balmy Easter weekend, it’s the last fixture of the ‘regular’ PRO14 campaign, a game which most of the cognoscenti felt would decide Ulster’s play- off fate. And against Leinster, unequivocally the team which dominates the league and European competition by its marvellous individual talents and by the wondrous strength and depth of its resources. Leo Cullen’s masterful guidance of the club he served with such distinction does not always get the credit it deserves. His lieutenant Stuart Lancaster has rightly received kudos for the expertise he has brought to Ireland’s greatest club side but Cullen, who as a player made the most of his attributes when there were lock forwards and flankers with more obvious gifts, took on surely the most demanding Head Coach role in Europe and has hugely prospered. He followed names like Cheika and Schmidt in the top job, and has plainly matched their achievements by harnessing and nurturing an apparently endless crop of top-class players. It is always an occasion in rugby when Ulster and Leinster lock horns, and if this evening’s stakes will not be as high as might have been anticipated the players, management and supporters of those in white and in blue will be willing displays from their favourites which copper-fastens the high hopes in Dublin and here in Ulster for a silverware-chasing finale to a long, intriguing and often exciting season.

Only just over a month ago the most fervent supporter was absorbed by the team’s battle for a ‘Top Three’ play-off spot, a little fearful even of the form of Benetton and Edinburgh in the league run-in. Of most immediate concern then was the Heineken Champions Cup quarter-final date with today’s visitors, Europe’s best, Leinster. Ulster fans went in their numbers to the Aviva at the end of March, hoping to create one of the season’s big upsets. From that day forward, following a display which convinced the doubters, Dan McFarland’s charges have been impressively focused. Defeat in that 21-18 thriller in Dublin was overwhelmed by the positive performance on the pitch, one where individuals and the side realised potential and persuaded the rugby community that consistency, an ability to battle in every second and to sustain confidence in each other whatever the odds, were characteristics Ulster could claim as their own. McFarland’s impact as Head Coach since his late summer arrival has been felt for some time within Kingspan Stadium, but he and his coaching team have chased away some ghosts of failures past in a year when European success returned in spades. If there were ‘ups and downs’ in the PRO14 – some of which too closely resembled the roller- coasters of too many recent years - there has always been a belief that Ulster is in good hands. On and off the pitch there is a sense of purpose and direction, and if there have been dismal days in Thomond and at The Showgrounds, there have been great nights



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