Pro12 semi-final: Improving Ulster can topple Leinster - McWhirter

Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson
Paddy Jackson has been in particularly impressive form in the latter part of the season
Guinness Pro12 semi-final: Leinster v Ulster
Date: Friday, 20 May Venue: The RDS, Dublin Kick-off: 19:45 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC Two Northern Ireland and BBC Sport website

Ulster will compete in the Pro12 semi-finals for the fourth consecutive season when they face Leinster at the RDS in Dublin on Friday night.

Ulster finished fourth in the table at the end of the regular season, with Leinster topping the standings.

Former Ulster back-rower, now BBC Sport NI analyst Tony McWhirter, offers his thoughts on the interprovincial derby.

Connacht entertain Glasgow Warriors at the Sportsground in Galway in the other semi-final on Saturday evening.

Will the scars from Ulster's defeat by Glasgow in last year's semi-final play a part?

T McW: Ulster had the game won against Glasgow last year until a dubious decision by the Television Match Official saw the momentum and initiative swing towards the hosts.

History stacks up against Ulster in the sense that no away team has ever won a semi-final in the competition since they were introduced but I think Ulster are a better side than last year and this is the best chance they will have.

They are playing with confidence and winning matches and you can't underestimate the confidence that going on a run of wins brings, especially when a number of those have been away from home.

Will Leinster's recent heavy 30-6 defeat by Ulster in Belfast be a factor?

Chris Henry and Sean Reidy in action against Rob Kearney
Chris Henry and Sean Reidy in action against Rob Kearney during Ulster's 30-6 win over Leinster at Kingspan Stadium in April

T McW: You have to take Leinster's big defeat at the Kingspan Stadium a couple of weeks ago into consideration but they will be a different proposition at the RDS.

It's a sell-out crowd and their coach Leo Cullen has been talking revenge, so that will be high on their priorities.

What will be the key areas where the game will be won and lost?

T McW: The game will be won up front, as these matches generally are, and Leinster have a very strong scrum.

Ulster must keep their discipline, listen to the referee, get him on side, and make sure it stays that way.

It could come down to a kicking contest between the two fly-halves, Johnny Sexton and Paddy Jackson, but I think the game will be a bit more open than that.

Both teams went into their last games of the regular season knowing that they had to score four tries to secure five points, which left some gaps and holes to exploit, but Ulster will have to tighten up their defence for this game, which I'm sure they are capable of doing.

Ulster will have to be as near flawless as they can in their execution, keeping errors to a minimum and taking their scoring chances.

Who will win?

T McW: There won't be an awful lot in it at the end but I think Ulster will win.

They have lost a few important matches in recent years and Leinster have been a bit of a bogey team for them but Ulster are a team on the up, while Leinster are maybe slightly the opposite.

Having experienced players will be important but it's a big stage for the younger players to shine too.

A lot of the younger players have been progessing well since the turn of the year, the likes of Peter Browne, Callum Black and Ricky Lutton, who are maybe unsung heroes, and don't attract a lot of headlines.

They have really come to the party and put themselves into consideration for Ireland by their good late season form.

Leinster have not always played to their potential in recent weeks, while Ulster not only beat an Ospreys side who still had something to play for in their last game, they really put a score on them.

Who will win the victors play in the final?

Connacht beat Glasgow 14-7 in Galway on the final day of the regular season
Connacht beat Glasgow 14-7 in Galway on the final day of the regular season

T McW: I fancy Glasgow to beat Connacht as the mitigating factor in their defeat in Galway a few weeks ago was that they had a man sent-off after 50 minutes when the score was 7-7.

Glasgow move the ball well and coach Gregor Townsend is very cute with how he tweaks his team selection. They also have experience of winning a competition and that counts for a lot.

Connacht's season has been a real fairytale and they probably deserve to be in the final given how they have performed all season but whether they can go that extra step I don't know, it might be just too much for them.

Tony McWhirter was talking to BBC Sport NI's Richard Petrie