Whatever the demands in Munster for a return to winning ways after a chastening home defeat to Leinster, it is up in Ulster where the need for atonement is felt much deeper ahead of this evening’s sold-out PRO14 derby clash in Belfast, writes Simon Lewis
Munster head coach Johann van Graan will send his new charges into a second interprovincial dust-up in six days tonight fuelled not just by the bitterness of losing his 100 per cent record at the province following his arrival in mid-November but also the meekness of its surrender.
The men in red paid the price at Thomond Park on St Stephen’s night for a desperately slow start, debilitated by both a lack of intensity and accuracy in a terrible first 40 minutes which was punished by a clinical Leinster outfit rightly recognised as the cream of the Irish crop.
There were signs of resilience in the way Peter O’Mahony led the fightback but sloppy kicking by the home side and brilliant breakdown work by the visitors denied Munster the comeback victory and now they have travelled north to make amends, no better occasion or time to turn over a new leaf for the incoming boss than at Ravenhill on New Year’s Day.
The only obstacle is the side waiting to receive them. The Ulster players have had nine days to stew over their embarrassing record defeat by Connacht in Galway, a six-try reality check at the Sportsground that deflated the confidence that would have poured into Les Kiss’s squad following back to back wins over Harlequins in the preceding fortnight.
A 44-16 hammering by interpro rivals will do that to a team. Particularly an injury-hit one, piling the pressure back on its coaching staff and resurrecting perceptions of a campaign riddled with inconsistency and frustration.
Not to underestimate the discomfort that will have been evident on the Munster training ground in Limerick these past few days but Ulster are feeling the pain and judging by the words of full-back Charles Piutau in yesterday’s papers, are firmly in “going to the well” territory to get their season back on track tonight.
“The guys are hurting,” was one of the All Black’s soundbites from his meeting with the media. “Training has had a bit of bite, the intensity is really up there and we’re challenging each other.”
Here’s another: “We want to do it for Les. It means a lot to us and he does a lot for this club and hopefully come Monday we can make everyone proud.”
More tellingly, the New Zealander is set to depart in a big-money move to Pat Lam’s English Premiership-bound Bristol at the end of the season added: “I get frustrated as a player week in, week out when I’m playing. I know my team-mates’ potential so when we don’t perform to our best I see their frustration.”
Frustration in a group of players can work in many ways and Munster will be hoping it leads to their opponents forcing things in desperation rather than channelling it positively into a higher intensity they had lacked in Galway a week last Saturday.
Much will also come down to the personnel selected by both director of rugby Kiss and head coach van Graan. For it is the season of good tidings and IRFU player rotation and both provinces have had to mix things up from their previous derby encounters. That means 11 changes for both starting XVs from the sides defeated in round 11.
The explosive All Black Piutau is one of the players adding spark to an Ulster backline, albeit missing Ireland’s new wing star Jacob Stockdale, a player welfare withdrawal and the injured Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall and Jared Payne. Stuart McCloskey returns to midfield, though, with on-loan Wallaby Christian Lealiifano back in a fly-half to give the Ulster attack a polished and potent playmaker.
Kiss has been forced into even greater surgery on his pack, with only academy back rower Nick Timoney retained and switched from No.8 to openside flanker, with former Munster man Jean Deysel returning from injury to take his place at the base of the scrum.
Yet the absentees, rested Lion Iain Henderson and injured Rory Best, Sean Reidy and Chris Henry, emphasise an understrength pack that Munster will be looking to get at as they vent their own frustrations.
Munster have stood down captain O’Mahony, Dave Kilcoyne, CJ Stander, Conor Murray and Ian Keatley, but their selection points to a greater strength in depth, certainly as far as the forwards are concerned. Irish international trio James Cronin, Niall Scannell and John Ryan start together in the front row for the first time this season while Darren O’Shea replaces Jean Kleyn in the second row alongside Billy Holland, who takes over the captaincy, stretching his ever-present run in the side to a 16th successive start of the campaign.
Flanker Tommy O’Donnell is the other forward retained from the Leinster defeat but makes a positional change from openside to blindside as he makes way for the return of South African powerhouse Chris Cloete, whose abrasiveness was sorely missed in countering Leinster’s rampant Dan Leavy last week. Jack O’Donoghue made a significant impact off the bench in that game and the Waterford man comes in for Stander to start at No.8.
In the backs, Keith Earls finally make his comeback from a hamstring injury suffered in early November and after two false starts. The absence of Andrew Conway, a double try scorer last week, means a place on the wing for the academy’s Calvin Nash while Earls moves into the outside centre berth, with Sammy Arnold moving to inside centre in the absence of Rory Scannell.
There are changes too, at half-back where Duncan Williams takes over from Murray and JJ Hanrahan gets just a third start at fly-half since his return from Northampton. With Tyler Bleyendaal still out injured and Keatley taking a break, Bill Johnston is promoted to the bench as out-half cover while wing Ronan O’Mahony may be called upon to make his comeback from the fractured fibula and prop Jeremy Loughman could make his Munster debut. Both line-ups are below strength but there is still plenty of talent on display. Yet for all Ulster’s offensive threats, Munster’s depth up front and more cohesive look could prove decisive in the battle for redemption.
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