When the bookmakers rate the home side as 2/5 favourites and their director of rugby regard the visitors as “desperate” after a series of poor results, it seems only sensible to regard the outcome of today’s Ulster-Munster Guinness Pro 12 clash at Kingspan Park as a foregone conclusion.
On the face of it, the men who lay the odds could hardly be blamed for their reading of the situation given the recent form of the two teams.
Whereas Ulster scored a superb double (38-0 and 25-23) against mighty Toulouse in the European Cup and followed with a battling 10-3 away win over resurgent Connacht in Galway, Munster have been floundering from one bad result to another.
Defeat today would be their sixth on the bounce and that’s why Ulster director of rugby Les Kiss, until recently a key member of the Irish management team, believes they may never be more dangerous than when they take to the Ravenhill pitch this afternoon.
“They will be circling the wagons and getting geared up for what could be the match of the season for them”, he warned. “It may well be the best prepared Munster team ever to come up here and we have to recognise that. In Interpros and against a desperate team like Munster, you need to be able to tough out the tough moments.”
Playing in front of their passionate fans will help his team do just that, all the more because it will be an emotive occasion as the much admired Andrew Trimble becomes the first Ulster player to make 200 appearances for the province. He has scored 67 tries in his 199 games and how he would love to add to that tally on such an historic occasion. Ulster field an unchanged back division from the Connacht game while Rory Best returns as hooker and captain.
Munster coach Anthony Foley is a man under immense pressure after recent setbacks and realises Ulster will not be showing any mercy.
“They’re a threat everywhere”, he acknowledges. “Their forwards are going well, their set piece is allowing them to launch a lot of plays and put pressure on the opposition and they also have a very dynamic back-row. (Ruan) Pienaar and (Paddy) Jackson at half-back who are running the show very well. I like the lad (Stuart) McCloskey in the centre as well. It’s a daunting place to go when teams are playing with that kind of confidence and trying to win. But that’s the task in front of us.” Whereas the Ulster squad is obviously bursting with confidence after four outstanding wins in a row, Munster’s sense of self belief may well be close to tatters.
Throughout his illustrious career, Foley has been as tough as they come but even he himself has been adversely affected by one error-ridden performance after another.
“It is affecting everyone; players, supporters, staff, coaches, management”, he said. “When you go on a losing run like this, you try and keep everything in context.
“But sometimes it is very hard to do that. We try and keep a level balance to it. We have tried to iron out a few issues and make sure that we are ready to give our best account against Ulster.” And yet he warns: “We look at our shortcomings and if we can rectify some of them, we’ll be a very hard team to beat”.
A good start would come with a return to a generous return of points from goal kicks. They have either missed simple efforts in each of the last four games or not gone for the posts at all and instead opted for close range line-outs and mauls that yielded little or nothing.
The onus will rest today on Ian Keatley, who enjoyed a decent percentage of success up to this season when his self belief has taken a bit of a hammering. Foley is hopeful a week’s rest will help him back on the right path.
Equally important from a Munster viewpoint would be a massive reduction in the number of handling and other elementary errors. They have cost the team dearly and a repeat this afternoon will prove fatal. Their cause is not helped by the absence of players of the calibre of Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan and Peter O’Mahony.
Munster will cling to the fact they have been unbeaten in their last three games against Ulster including a 32-28 win at Thomond Park in round 6 in November. Equally, Ulster take reassurance from not having lost at Kingspan since May 2014. Also, the bookmakers rarely get it wrong!
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