Make-or-break clash a sell-out

MUNSTER'S drawing power was further highlighted yesterday with the clash against Ulster at Ravenhill tonight virtually sold out.

Ulster coach Mark McCall said: "This fixture is always a big one for us. We have been drawing big crowds for all of our games, but Munster's visit to Belfast is always keenly anticipated. There is great rivalry between the sides and that would appear to be reflected in the interest shown by the fans."

Mind you, the fact that it is a make-or-break top of the table clash helps big time.

"There is a huge amount riding on this game," admitted McCall, whose side can overtake Munster by winning, unless the visitors take at least a bonus point in defeat.

Remarkably, it's an Irish 1-2-3 at the top of the table, with only Edinburgh Gunners - who are guaranteed four points by being free this weekend - challenging seriously, although Llanelli, nine points adrift, have two games in hand and can strike back later.

Ulster show two changes from the side which defeated Edinburgh at Murrayfield in mid-February. Tommy Bowe comes back on the wing in place of James Topping. Jonny Bell is a surprise choice to partner Paul Steinmetz in the centre in the absence of Andrew Trimble, who was not released by Ireland. Kevin Maggs has been relegated to the bench.

The only other changes are amongst the replacements, where Ryan Caldwell is named ahead of Rowan Frost as second-row cover and Kevin Maggs returns to the 22 having recovered from an elbow injury.

Paul Burke returns to a Munster side showing four changes from the team that played against Glasgow at Thomond Park last time out.

It's Burke's first outing since being injured against Cardiff at the start of November, and provides him with an opportunity to make his mark in his last few months as a Munster player. Burke has signed a two-year deal with Leicester from next season but he desperately wants to help Munster win some silverware.

Although playing second fiddle to Ronan O'Gara for the Heineken Cup campaign, he has identified the Celtic League as a huge opportunity for him and the team.

"It's a long season and the Celtic League is important to everyone in the squad. We have enjoyed a good run, are looking forward to playing Ulster and, hopefully, getting the result that will keep us on top."

Munster are, however, at a huge disadvantage with so many of their players in the national squad.

Ulster, for instance, can call on all but Trimble, while Munster must run without O'Gara, Peter Stringer, Marcus Horan, Jerry Flannery, John Hayes, Donncha O'Callaghan, Paul O'Connell, Denis Leamy and David Wallace.

In addition, things haven't gone quite so smoothly for Munster in terms of injury.

Trevor Hogan, groomed sensibly as a future international-class second row, is out with injury and Brian Madigan is being thrown into a competitive debut in a most intimidating of venues. He is lucky to have Mick O'Driscoll as a partner to guide him through, but it still won't be easy.

Donnacha Ryan (Shannon) had been set to come in for the injured Hogan, but Ryan, who earlier had been named in the Ireland AIB League side, sprained an ankle in training and was forced out of the side.

League leaders for so long, the next two games will be defining days in their season.

ULSTER: B. Cunningham, T. Bowe, J. Bell, P. Steinmetz, A. Maxwell, D. Humphreys, I. Boss, B. Young, R. Best, S. Best (captain), J. Harrison, M. McCullough, N. Best, R. Wilson, S. Ferris.

Replacements: N. Brady, J. Fitzpatrick, R. Caldwell, N. McMillan, K. Campell, A. Larkin, K. Maggs.

MUNSTER: S Payne; I Dowling, B Murphy, T Halstead, A Horgan; P Burke, T O'Leary; F Roche, D Fogarty, F Pucciariello; B Madigan, M O'Driscoll; S Keogh, J O'Sullivan, A Foley (captain).

Replacements: E McGovern, T Buckley, M Melbourne, J O'Connor, M Prendergast, M Lawlor, G Connolly.

More in this section

CourtsRugbyCeltic LeaguePlace: RavenhillPlace: BelfastPlace: MurrayfieldPlace: Thomond ParkPerson: Mark McCallPerson: McCallPerson: Tommy BowePerson: James ToppingPerson: Jonny BellPerson: Paul SteinmetzPerson: Andrew TrimblePerson: Kevin MaggsPerson: Ryan CaldwellPerson: Rowan FrostPerson: Paul BurkePerson: BurkePerson: Ronan O'GaraPerson: O'GaraPerson: Peter StringerPerson: Marcus HoranPerson: Jerry FlanneryPerson: John HayesPerson: Donncha O'CallaghanPerson: Paul O'ConnellPerson: Denis LeamyPerson: David WallacePerson: Trevor HoganPerson: Brian MadiganPerson: Mick O'DriscollPerson: Donnacha RyanPerson: ShannonPerson: HoganPerson: RyanPerson: B. CunninghamPerson: T. BowePerson: J. BellPerson: P. SteinmetzPerson: A. MaxwellPerson: D. HumphreysPerson: I. BossPerson: B. YoungPerson: R. BestPerson: S. BestPerson: J. HarrisonPerson: M. McCulloughPerson: N. BestPerson: R. WilsonPerson: N. BradyPerson: J. FitzpatrickPerson: R. CaldwellPerson: N. McMillanPerson: K. CampellPerson: A. LarkinPerson: S PaynePerson: I DowlingPerson: B MurphyPerson: T HalsteadPerson: A HorganPerson: P BurkePerson: T O'LearyPerson: F RochePerson: D FogartyPerson: F PucciarielloPerson: B MadiganPerson: M O'DriscollPerson: S KeoghPerson: J O'SullivanPerson: A FoleyPerson: E McGovernPerson: T BuckleyPerson: M MelbournePerson: J O'ConnorPerson: M PrendergastPerson: M LawlorPerson: G ConnollyEvent: Heineken CupOrganisation: UlsterOrganisation: MunsterOrganisation: Edinburgh GunnersOrganisation: LlanelliOrganisation: EdinburghOrganisation: IrelandOrganisation: GlasgowOrganisation: CardiffOrganisation: LeicesterOrganisation: Celtic LeagueOrganisation: Ireland AIB League

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