Penney braced for Ulster’s ‘benchmark’ challenge

Munster’s bid to close the gap on RaboDirect Pro12 leaders Ulster tomorrow at Thomond Park (5.30pm) may be enhanced by the return of an Ireland Test trio but Rob Penney is under no illusions about the size of the task.

Conor Murray, Peter O’Mahony and Simon Zebo could all feature for third-placed Munster as head coach Penney’s side bid to exact revenge for September’s league defeat at Ravenhill.

More recently, Penney has been impressed by the way fellow New Zealander Mark Anscombe’s side rebounded in superb style from their first defeat of the campaign, at home to Northampton Saints in the Heineken Cup, by beating Leinster 27-19 at Ravenhill last Friday to make it 11 wins from 11 in the league so far and open up a nine-point lead at the top over second-place Scarlets, 14 points clear of his own side.

“The Ulster guys are going really well, so it will be a real benchmark for us, given that they are so far in front and playing some really good, tough rugby,” Penney said.

“These local derbies are fantastic. I saw them (Ulster) on Friday. Brutal, big, robust, tough, physical, clinical. All the clichés and superlatives you’re probably used to hearing about them every week.

“The way they dismantled the Leinster scrum and put them under real pressure... they brutalised Leinster.”

That victory over the European champions will make Ulster even harder to beat, particularly with the northerners’ Heineken Cup quarter-final triumph in Limerick last April still fresh in the memory.

“They’ll be very difficult,” Penney said. “To come away having beaten Leinster will boost their confidence even more coming to Thomond Park, not that they needed a boost.

“Hopefully we can have lots of people there with their Christmas party hats on and give Ulster a hard time like they gave us a hard time up there.”

Like Ulster, Munster also bounced back well from Heineken Cup defeat, beating Connacht last Saturday in Galway to ease the pain of a 19-13 defeat on December 16 to Saracens. That leaves Munster needing maximum points from their remaining Pool 1 games to give them any hope of returning to the last eight with a visit to Edinburgh first up on January 13.

The Scots, semi-finalists last season but yet to even score a try this campaign, let alone win, could also be without Scotland captain and hooker Ross Ford, who was yesterday ruled out of action for this weekend with a stinger injury to his shoulder.

Connacht, meanwhile, have named an extended squad for their trip to Leinster ahead of tomorrow’s derby at the RDS (7.45pm).

Head coach Eric Elwood does not have Leinster-bound forward Mike McCarthy available but has included fit-again centre Kyle Tonetti in a 26-man squad after the former Leinster underage player returned to training following treatment for a hamstring injury in Germany.

There could also be a provincial debut for 23-year-old winger Matt Healy, with Elwood set to announce his starting XV today.

CONNACHT (v Leinster): Forwards: B Wilkinson, D Buckley, R Loughney, N White, R Ah You, J Harris-Wright, E Reynecke, M Swift, M Kearney, A Browne, J O’Connor, E Grace, E McKeon, G Naoupu; Backs: K Marmion, P O’Donohoe, D Parks, M Jarvis, F Vainikolo, M Healy, D McSharry, E Griffin, D Poolman, K Tonetti, T O’Halloran, R Henshaw.

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