Their Rugby World Cup commitments behind them, Munster’s Simon Zebo, Donnacha Ryan, and Mario Sagario, and Chris Henry, Darren Cave, and Paddy Jackson of Ulster are set to make their first appearances of the season for their respective provinces in this evening’s (6pm) Guinness Pro12 interprovincial derby at Thomond Park.
Munster head coach Anthony Foley starts Zebo on the right wing with Ryan and Uruguayan prop Sagario on the bench. Ulster counterpart Neil Doak includes Cave and Jackson from the outset, with Henry likely to join the action in the second half.
Of this group, most interest will centre on Sagario, a 29- year-old, 6ft 1.5in, 18 stone 4lbs prop who linked up with Munster this week. The Montevideo native will be easily identifiable by a spectacular beard and curly black hair.
He started all of Uruguay’s four World Cup matches, during which their set-piece earned many kudos. He boasts 51 Uruguayan caps and even though he has joined Munster on a temporary contract until the end of January as a stand-in for Stephen Archer, there is the possibility of an extension should his form warrant it.
Andrew Conway starts at full-back, a position many good judges believe to be best suited to his particular talents, although he regrets as keenly as everyone else associated with Munster that the opportunity has presented itself because of the enforced retirement from the game of fellow Dubliner Felix Jones.
New Zealander Francis Saili teams up with Denis Hurley in the centre and Tomás O’Leary starts at scrum-half for the first time since his return from London Irish.
The battle for places in the second row heats up from now on with Donnacha Ryan sure to put the pressure on Dave Foley and Australian Mark Chisholm, while CJ Stander’s switch to the blindside flank, with Robin Copeland at No8 and Jack O’Donoghue at 7, indicates that this may well be Foley’s preferred back-row grouping as the season progresses.
Ulster’s only league win over Munster at Thomond Park since 2009 was achieved on a 19-17 scoreline in May last year. Munster scraped the corresponding game last season 21-20, Ulster’s out-half Ian Humphreys missing a last-minute goal kick, and the sides drew 23-23 at Ravenhill in May. Foley is under no illusions about the challenge. He is particularly wary of what looks a fast and dangerous visiting three-quarter line. “The player so far who has caught everybody’s eye is Stuart McCloskey at 12,” warned Foley.
“He has great ball-carrying ability and a lot of subtleties for such a big man. And he has Darren Cave back from the World Cup as his centre partner. Andrew Trimble on one wing, Craig Gilroy on the other with Nick Williams trying to get some go-forward ball at No8... there is a lot to be mindful about.”
Foley has made no secret of his annoyance at the manner in which last week’s game at the Scarlets was thrown away by some poor option taking.
A second successive defeat would hurt the squad badly at this crucial stage of the campaign and Ulster will not in any way be intimidated by the challenge.
Munster are third in the Pro12 standings, two points behind Scarlets and Connacht, with Ulster tied for 4th two points further back.