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Hamilton: Ulster know Johnny Sexton is flappable

By Jim Hamilton
Johnny Sexton throws the ball away after Ireland concede a penalty on the stroke of half-time in Cardiff (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

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I love the Champions Cup, love the mad rush that happens leading up to the quarter-finals. This is a tournament that is drawn-out and disjointed as teams have had the Six Nations break. Players come back either on a high or a low and usually need a week off, so there is no momentum going into these quarter-finals.


It’s knockout rugby, a one-off game. If you look at history and the stats gone by for the quarter-finals, it’s really difficult to go away from home and win. But the rugby has opened up massively this season in terms of the way teams are playing, in terms of some of the performances of the players, and in terms of the some of the decisions that are being made.

This is one the best quarter-final set-ups I have ever seen across the board. All the games are really difficult to call, apart from one of the four. It’s going to be a brilliant weekend.

LEINSTER v ULSTER – Saturday, 5.45pm (Aviva Stadium)

Leinster are going to be favourites. It’s in Dublin, in their backyard, they are well established in this tournament and come into this quarter-final as defending champions, but Ulster will put up a real battle. 

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This is a brilliant fixture for Irish rugby, just the fifth ever all-Irish match-up in Europe, and it’s brilliant to see Ulster coming good again. They are steeped in history as well, having lifting the trophy 20 years ago.

It’s going to be a real ding-dong, going to be a really quality game where Ireland national team friends become enemies in as short a time as two weeks. 

It’s weird what is going on in Irish rugby. There was all this talk at the start of the year about how Ireland were going to win the Six nations, about how Ireland are favourites for the World Cup and about how Leinster are going to walk it in Europe.


But look now at where we are now. Ireland struggled in the Six Nations and were nowhere near the level expected of them. That should be a concern to Leinster as they make up the backbone of the Irish team, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Ulster could do something here.  

They have almost come in under the radar. No one expected them to do anything this season. They had a load of changes off the back of their torrid season on and off the pitch last season, a new fly-half in Billy Burns, a new coach in Dan McFarland and they have just come in under the radar, sneaking a few wins off the back of John Cooney’s boot.

There is a lot of chat about how Ulster are a Leinster B team, about how numerous ex-Leinster players are now playing out of Belfast. This will definitely be an underlying thing with the Ulster players. Jordi Murphy, for instance, made the switch last summer and all this cross-over will just add to the emotion. 

The players in the Ulster dressing room will know the stuff that is being said about them in the media, they will know that Leinster are favourites and they will know they are looked at as the lesser team because Leinster are the No1 – they are the champions of this competition and the PRO14 as well. 

But it’s all there for Ulster with the emotion that they can bring to the occasion. Unlike at the RDS, so many of their players are not uncomfortable playing at the Aviva and having watched the Six Nations, they will know that Johnny Sexton is flappable at the minute.

You have to talk about his form – he has not been the player that he was six months ago, so Ulster do have a really good opportunity here and they have a fantastic coach in McFarland who will know all the pressure is on Leinster and their coaching staff. 

This will be a real defining moment for Irish rugby. I’d love to see Ulster win. I’m a big fan of Darren Cave, Burns, Cooney and Murphy, but you just have to go on the credentials of Leinster, you have to go on what you have seen this season. They are champions for a good reason. 

VERDICT – This will be close, but Leinster will win it.

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Hamilton: Ulster know Johnny Sexton is flappable