Munster v Ulster
It will be a case of double vision for Munster at Thomond Park tonight when head coach Anthony Foley sends out twin playmakers Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan in a bid to exact revenge over Ulster for inflicting last season’s Pro12 embarrassment on the same ground.
May’s 19-17 reverse to the northerners would have hurt quite enough for any Munster outfit in their Limerick home but the fact Rob Penney’s men went down to a second-string Ulster outfit saving their big guns for the following week’s play-off semi-final against Leinster made the defeat a low point of the campaign.
This evening sees both teams under new management from last spring with Foley and Neil Doak, formerly a Wolfhounds coaching ticket, now rival head coaches in their debut seasons as the third-placed Guinness Pro12 team welcomes the team currently in second after eight matches.
Munster boss Foley will persist with starting both his fly-halves as he did in the five-try defeat of Newport Gwent Dragons last week in Wales, Keatley playing at No.10 with Hanrahan continuing in his new position at full-back to provide a creative axis for attack coach Brian Walsh.
It is not a new concept with southern hemisphere coaches in particular utilising their playmakers in tandem rather than succession, usually at fly-half and inside centre. Only last week, Australia head coach Michael Cheika highlighted the positives of the approach when he paired Bernard Foley at out-half and Matt Toomua on his outside shoulder, providing a twin attacking threat either side of rucks and at set-pieces.
Munster have at times had Keatley and Hanrahan on the field at the same time, but always at 10-12 until last weekend’s trip to Rodney Parade and defence and skills coach Ian Costello believes it is an experiment worth continuing.
“I think Anthony has been very clear, and Brian from an attacking perspective, that you want to have decision-makers on the field, distributors,” Costello said. “It could be at 10-12, it could be at 10-15. I think the last day obviously with JJ in the second half it was a new position for him but I think towards the end of the game, he looked more and more comfortable.
“I think he probably found a way to get himself into the game and he had some important touches and he had some pretty crucial involvement towards the end of the game. That is what Axel has spoken about all along as a possibility for us and it worked out well for us at the weekend.”
Costello said he was comfortable with Hanrahan working out the full-back role for himself rather than asking him to conform to pre-conceived notions about the position.
“There is always an argument that players learn by going out and experiencing it themselves,” he said. “JJ is an experienced player and I think as a 10 you are always aware of a 15’s positioning. So it was good for JJ to look at it from the other point of view, to see how much ground he had to cover, what did he find difficult to cover, and it all adds to his appreciation and understanding as an out-half. So it all adds into it.”
The new approach will tonight be put under much tougher examination than the Dragons provided last week, with Ulster having lost only once in the Pro12 this season, to Zebre in round four, while conceding only 98 points in eight games, making theirs the meanest defence in the league.
Munster have the next best rearguard having conceded 113 points while keeping the Dragons tryless last Friday. They will need to remain vigilant as Ulster bid for a second successive victory in Limerick for the first time since 1992-93, with a much stronger travelling squad than showed up at Thomond Park last May.
Ireland hooker Rory Best returns to captain the Ulster men in one of four changes to the side that beat league leaders Ospreys at Ravenhill a week ago, with Ian Humphreys starting at fly-half in the absence of Paddy Jackson, who suffered a shoulder injury in that game.
Stuart Olding at full-back, Craig Gilroy on the left wing and Darren Cave at outside centre are the other internationals in the Ulster side who contributed to Ireland’s Guinness Series sweep against South Africa, Georgia and Australia with another, back rower Robbie Diack on the bench.
If Diack gets on tonight, he may well come up against a fellow former pupil of the Michaelhouse school in Natal, with Munster loanee, Pat Howard from Western Province, given his first start at outside centre, having debuted off the bench in Newport.
“Last year they came down with an understrength side and they beat us in Thomond Park and I think we are talking about that now,” Costello said. “We are looking to operate the standards we should be operating at and Thomond Park has to be a place that people fear coming, and we have to make sure that on Friday night we reestablish that.
“We were disappointed, we let ourselves down last year when they came here and beat us with the side that they came down with so it is a good opportunity to put that right.”
Dual playmaking combinations to aspire to...
Dan Carter & Aaron Mauger (New Zealand)
Between 2004 and Mauger’s retirement from Test rugby in 2007, this Canterbury and Cursaders pair played 16 Tests as a 10-12 partnership, winning 13 of them. Mauger was the archetypal playmaking inside centre, having forged a similarly successful combination with Andrew Mehrtens in his early Test career, providing the All Blacks with tactical and kicking options from the second five-eighth position.
Jonny Wilkinson & Matt Giteau (Toulon)
A brilliant meeting of northern and southern hemispheres down by the Mediterranean, this was the alchemy that turned Toulon red into European gold with back-to-back Heineken Cup title runs in 2013 and 2014, English World Cup winner Wilkinson at first pivot with former Wallaby Giteau equally able to pull the strings and provide the craft to unleash the world-class backs outside them.
Bernard Foley & Matt Toomua (Australia)
The current Wallaby axis showed against Ireland last week in the Aviva the benefits of twin playmakers, even they came out on the wrong side of the result. With kicking and creative options on either side of the scrum or breakdown, Australia were able to launch dangerous attacks down both sides.
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