Ulster host Leinster in a game between the two early front-runners in the competition, with the sides the only ones in the competition who have a full house of points after two games. As always, there is intense interest in the clash in Ireland, with the focus this year being further intensified by the fact that last season Ulster managed to pull off a rare double against their arch rivals.
Leinster are of course still smarting from their unexpected exit from last year’s title race at the hands of the Vodacom Bulls in the semi-final stage, as well as their heartbreaking last move defeat to La Rochelle in the Heineken Champions Cup final before that.
And with it having been announced this week that their assistant coach Stuart Lancaster will be taking up a new job as boss at French club Racing 92 next year, the Leinster players have expressed a desire to put in a special effort for the popular former England coach.
“Initially it was for just one season and here I am entering my seventh and that is a reflection on all the players past and present I have worked with and the people of Leinster and Ireland who have made me and my family feel so welcome,” Lancaster said in a statement.
“I have always wanted to challenge myself as a coach in different ways and the opportunity to coach in France at a club like Racing 92 is an exciting one and I will look forward to that challenge when it comes.”
So influential has Lancaster been at Leinster that there have been predictions in the Irish media that his departure could lead to “an unravelling”, particularly as several top players, such a Jonny Sexton, are expected to retire after next year’s Rugby World Cup in France.
The Ireland RWC preparations might also mean that Leinster will have limited access to their international players this season.
All of those factors, plus the spice added by Leinster having been on the receiving end from their rivals last season, will add to the hunger evident in the occasion, with rumours abounding in Ireland that Sexton will be involved in the game, something that isn’t always a given.
With Munster having lost to Cardiff and the Dragons, and Connacht having been well beaten by both Ulster and the Vodacom URC champions, the DHL Stormers, the winner will emerge as the leader in what could soon become a two horse race among the Irish provinces to exert pressure on the South African challenge.
Both teams have been in good try scoring form, with Leinster having scored 11 and Ulster 12, but Ulster head coach Dan McFarland expects a much tighter game that will feature defensive systems that will demand much more from the attacking plans of the respective teams.
“We will be tested a lot more in defence,” said the Ulster head coach whose side managed seven tries but also conceded five in a high scoring 55-39 win over Scarlets last week.
“That’s no disrespect to Scarlets who defended in a particular way, but Leinster will defend in a completely different way, and we will have to be more definite and precise and make the best of fewer opportunities.”
One thing McFarland doesn’t need to question is the motivation of the Leinster opponents his team will face. While winning a series in New Zealand for Ireland helped the Leinster players get over their Champions Cup final and URC semi-final losses, centre Robbie Henshaw admitted it was something they still had to get out of their system when they came home.
"You definitely want to address it, we looked at clips of what we did well in New Zealand and what we could bring in here," he explained.
"You address how we lost, the fashion of how we lost to La Rochelle and the Bulls - two of the power-based teams. It's hard to watch, hard to look at. But we need to fix it on the pitch. The Champions Cup final in France is definitely one of the lowest points I've experienced. Hopefully we'll take that feeling and drive it on again this year.”
Weekend Vodacom United Rugby Championship fixtures
Friday, 30 September
18h30: Vodacom Bulls v Connacht (Pretoria)
20h35: Ulster v Leinster (Belfast)
20h35: Cardiff Rugby v Emirates Lions (Cardiff)
Saturday, 1 October
14h00: DHL Stormers v Edinburgh (Cape Town)
16h05: Ospreys v Glasgow Warriors (Swansea)
18h05: Munster v Zebre Parma (Limerick)
18h15: Benetton v Scarlets (Treviso)
20h35: Dragons v Cell C Sharks (Newport)