It wasn’t the prettiest of games but it helped Munster end a run of five successive defeats and provided the springboard for a successful challenge for qualification in this season’s European Cup.
If tonight’s rematch at the Kingspan doesn’t carry quite the same degree of urgency, it is important for the squad to produce a similarly resilient performance, if only to convince the sceptics they can build on last week’s brilliance against Glasgow Warriors.
Munster travel north short key men Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, and CJ Stander, withdrawn at the request of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, while Keith Earls is suspended. They are replaced by Andrew Conway, Duncan Williams, Jack O’Donoghue, and Ronan O’Mahony, while in a fifth change from the Glasgow game, Ian Keatley returns at out-half in place of Tyler Bleyendaal.
The New Zealander, so good against Glasgow, is rested because Munster are “managing player load”, according to yesterday’s press release.
Peter O’Mahony is given the opportunity of more game time as he returns from a long-term knee injury. South African Abrie Griesel is the substitute scrum-half having impressed in the All-Ireland League with Young Munster.
Few in Munster will quickly forget the magnificent gesture of the Kingspan crowd in singing ‘The Fields of Athenry’ prior to their game last week in honour of Anthony Foley or that they have erected a plaque to his memory in the away dressing room.
“You watch that Munster game and you’re lost for words when you see the outpouring of emotion,” said Ulster coach Les Kiss.
“It seems like it’ll take forever to sink in but we’ve had a few days to get our heads on and prepare. It’s about being able to crystallise what this game is really about, just like Axel would want. We have to accept that and work with it.”
Kiss has made eight personnel changes from the side that edged out Exeter Chiefs in the European Cup last week. Tommy Bowe and Craig Gilroy return on the wing and the richly talented New Zealander Charles Piutau switches from the centre to full-back. There are five alterations in a pack that includes Dan Tuohy, Wiehhn Herbst, and Robbie Diack after lengthy absences. Ireland’s Jared Payne and Iain Henderson are their most notable absentees.
Foley always maintained that the absence of the international contingent at this time of every season represented opportunities for others and Rassie Erasmus is of a similar opinion.
“The team is growing into something and whether last week will help us or give us a reality check as to where we are remains to be seen,” said Erasmus.
“There are two competitions going at the same time and we’re back into PRO12 now and playing the long-time table leaders away from home with international players out. Last week should surely give us the confidence to know that even if we don’t perform every week like that, that we can perform like that. It’s more the way we play is where we should put pressure on ourselves.”
A repeat of last week’s performance would warm the hearts of Munster supporters, though some fear a return to the disappointing form of earlier in the campaign.
“We were four out of six and lost by one point to Cardiff so there wasn’t a match in which we were smashed,” argued Erasmus. “We played Leinster away and for 60 minutes we were still in the game. When you have new staff in, new defence coach in, it takes a bit of time to get used to one another. For me, the potential was always there and I just know this team can go places even if I’m not sure how long it will take.”