With Leinster and Glasgow heading for semi-final home draws next weekend barring unforeseen disasters at home to Edinburgh and Zebre respectively tonight, both Munster and Ulster go into this game with away trips to plan for having secured the remaining berths.
That renders this game somewhat meaningless, barring those potential but unlikely hiccups, but the comparative selection policies of the protagonists highlight different approaches to this 6.30pm kick-off at Thomond Park.
Ulster have travelled to Limerick in times past with considerably greater intent than their coach Mark Anscombe displayed yesterday when naming his team, leaving most of his star players back in Belfast to rest them ahead of a potential semi-final clash with Leinster next Saturday in Dublin.
A year ago last December Anscombe did something similar, happy to sacrifice an impressive, unbeaten start in the league by sending an understrength squad south to a defeat more resounding than the 24-10 scoreline suggests.
And once again there will be no Jared Payne, Tommy Bowe or Andrew Trimble, nor Darren Cave and Luke Marshall, while Paddy Jackson and Paul Marshall are also rested.
Anscombe’s options elsewhere are little more limited with Tom Court suspended following his red card last week against Leinster, while Ruan Pienaar, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick and Roger Wilson are ruled out for medical and fitness reasons.
It leaves Ireland lock Dan Tuohy to captain a side showing 12 changes from the one which earned a losing bonus point at Ravenhill last week and secured fourth place in the league table, with Craig Gilroy at full-back, second row Lewis Stevenson and back rower Nick Williams the only other first-team squad regulars.
Contrast that with the Munster side Rob Penney will field for his final home game as head coach. There are 10 changes from the side which started last weekend at Meggetsfield and recorded the biggest away win in the league this season, a 55-10 thumping of Edinburgh. But Penney’s side tonight is actually closer to the line-up he sent into the Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon a fortnight ago, only South African duo BJ Botha and CJ Stander given a break from that day in Marseille with Conor Murray and Keith Earls on the bench.
“There will be a bit of that [keeping the semi-final in mind],” Penney said, “but I’m conscious of a keeping a little momentum too.”
As spirited as Ulster were in making a fight of it with only 14 men for 65 minutes against Leinster, they have won just once in their last five starts, against Connacht at home on April 11 so there is little momentum for them to lose but that will not diminish the fight Munster can expect in an interprovincial derby when old scores are there to be settled.
Penney’s side felt they got a raw deal from referee Alain Rolland at Ravenhill on January 3 when a shaky first-half gave way to a second period dominated by the Munster pack only to be denied what looked like a perfectly legitimate third try from a rolling maul. Ruan Pienaar was also gifted some cheap points from penalties in a 29-19 defeat that toppled them from the league lead and still has the head coach wondering what might have been as they face into a trip to Glasgow next weekend.
“There’s a few along the year that you’d say we probably got the rough end of the stick and they cost you,” Penney said.
“We’re in a position now where we’re only a couple of points the other side of potentially having a home [semi-final] game but it doesn’t look like we’re going to. So, yeah, there’s a couple of games there that are a bit tough to take but that’s sport.”
At least Munster should head to Scotstoun next Friday night bouyed by a final home victory of the season as tonight’s offering already looks like a one-sided affair.