Munster Director of Rugby Rassie Erasmus once again rings the changes for this afternoon’s Guinness PRO12 encounter with Ulster at Thomond Park.
Seven days ago, he made ten alterations for the clash with Glasgow Warriors and to his great relief came out on the right side of a 10-7 result.
This week, he has again juggled his forces with nine changes for the visit of Ulster although if anything this looks an even stronger looking line-up.
The good news for Munster fans is that Tyler Bleyendaal and Donnacha Ryan, both of whom took knocks to the head last week, have completed their return to play protocols and are included in the starting side. As against that, however, there is still no sign of either scrum-half Conor Murray or CJ Stander, laid low by shoulder and ankle injuries since the Six Nations Championship and they must now be regarded as extremely doubtful starters for next week’s European Championship semi-final against Saracens.
Skipper Peter O’Mahony and Tommy O’Donnell return to the back-row where Jack O’Donoghue retains favour and is now clearly the front runner to replace Stander should the need arise.
There will be a degree of surprise at the retention of Bleyendaal given that Ian Keatley has successfully rehabbed a knee ligament injury and is included among the replacements.
Ulster boss Les Kiss was less than pleased to see his side held to a 24-all draw by Cardiff Blues last week although he has made just three changes as he chases a win that would go a long way toward sneaking his team into the knock-out stages of the competition.
On a more positive note, Ulster are aiming to continue a run of seven unbeaten games.
They have injury problems of their own and go into the game without the formidable presence of full-back Jarred Payne, Tommy Bowe and Marcell Coetzee.
Jacob Stockdale, the team’s top try scorer in the PRO12 this season, replaces Payne at full-back and in two other changes from the Cardiff game, Andrew Trimble (who captains the side) is preferred to fellow international Craig Gilroy on the right wing with the potentially lethal New Zealander Charles Piutau on the left wing.
Ulster will hope for an inspirational performance from their talented and highly experienced half-back partnership of Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar and a talented centre duo of Stuart Olding and Luke Marshall.
However, their influence on the proceedings will largely depend on how a pack that contains Chris Henry back in the number seven jersey and Iain Henderson on the blindside fares against a pretty formidable Munster eight.
The player himself and all of Ulster would like to have seen Piutau make an even bigger impression in the famous white jersey since his arrival last September. Failure to snatch the 3rd or 4th qualifying spot from either Ospreys (65 pts) or Scarlets (6 like themselves although better placed on points scored), would be a massive disappointment for the Kiwi.
“You find out through these games what teams are made of, the character of the team and hopefully we get to prove to ourselves and to everyone what we can do”, he commented.
Les Kiss also acknowledges the extent of the challenge awaiting his side: “It is treated like a fortress but if there is a place going to bring something out in us, it is Thomond Park” while captain Trimble worried aloud: “if you don’t show up, you get hockeyed out the gate”.
That is unlikely to happen and you suspect Munster would love to repeat the heroics of the first meeting of the sides this season when man of the match Rory Scannell inspired them to come from 14-0 down at Ravenhill to win 15-14.
S Zebo; D Sweetnam, F Saili, R Scannell, K Earls; T Bleyendaal, D Williams; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan, D Ryan, B Holland, P O’Mahony capt, T O’Donnell, J O’Donoghue.
R Marshall, J Cronin, S Archer, D O’Callaghan, J Deysel, A Lloyd, I Keatley, A Conway.
J Stockdale; A Trimble capt, L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best, W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O’Connor, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.
R Herring, C Black, R Ah You, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy
Marius Mitrea (Italy).
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