Fears that an injury to Keith Earls would be another long-term problem for Munster and Ireland were eased yesterday when he was given a place on the bench for his province at Thomond Park tonight.
His availability for an important RaboDirect Pro12 clash is surely of big relief to under-pressure outgoing coach Tony McGahan, who could well be overseeing his last game on a ground he enjoyed mixed results on.
McGahan makes two changes, one of them positional, from the side that started their last Rabo match against Scarlets. His only hope of appearing with Munster again in Limerick requires a win tonight to finish third, to beat second-placed Ospreys in a semi-final and for the fourth-placed side, probably Glasgow, to beat Leinster in the other side of the draw.
That unlikely series of events would make Munster top seeds and give them a home final.
It is a big night for Lifeimi Mafi and Tomás O’Leary (bench), both of whom will be most likely making their last appearances in Thomond Park in the red jersey. It is also a huge opportunity for the highly rated Ivan Dineen to play alongside Mafi. Wian du Preez comes in to start ahead of Dave Kilcoyne.
Ulster have made 10 changes from the side that beat Edinburgh and will be without Ruan Pienaar, Stephen Ferris, Johann Muller, Rory Best and Chris Henry, leaving them vulnerable to a Munster backlash following their recent Heineken Cup joust at the same venue.
“It’s a game we want to win,” declared Munster skipper Paul O’Connell.
“It’s our last home game of the season. It was a frustrating weekend for us watching Ulster and Leinster playing in the Heineken Cup. We have trained really well this week and have prepared really well. There is a good buzz and excitement there and guys are looking forward to the weekend.
“Hopefully we will get a good performance. We have played a bit in fits and starts in the last few months. We haven’t really put a good 80-minute performance in so hopefully we will get that and it will set us up for the semis.”
The absence of Ronan O’Gara didn’t disturb him unduly though.
“We have a very strong squad and that’s why Ian Keatley is here. Guys are really enthusiastic to come in and make their mark and we have always said that when someone is injured, it is a great opportunity for someone else. It is part and parcel of the game that you will get injuries so you have to perform as a squad and I’m confident we can do that.”
As Brian McLaughlin rings the changes within the Ulster squad, Ireland U20 star Iain Henderson will make his first senior start when he lines out at blindside flanker. The 20-year-old made an impressive appearance as a second row replacement against Connacht last month. Academy player Chris Cochrane has also been given a chance to impress after being handed a starting berth on the left wing.
To seal a play-off spot Ulster must win with a bonus point and hope both Glasgow and Scarlets pick up nothing from their games against Cardiff and Connacht respectively.
But McLaughlin accepts the chance of picking up league silverware is highly unlikely.
“We are reliant on other results and realise everything going our way is unlikely.”
MUNSTER: F Jones; J Murphy, I Dineen, L Mafi, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; W du Preez, M Sherry, BJ Botha; M O’Driscoll, P O’Connell; D Ryan, T O’Donnell, P O’Mahony.
Replacements: D Varley, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, D O’Callaghan, P Butler, T O’Leary, S Deasy, K Earls.
ULSTER: A D’Arcy; A Trimble, N Spence, I Whitten, C Cochrane; P Jackson, P Marshal, P McAllister, N Brady (c), D Fitzpatrick, L Stevenson, D Tuohy, I Henderson, W Faloon, R Diack.
Replacements: N Annett, C Black, T Court, M McComish, A Birch, B McIlroy, I Humphreys, C Gilroy.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved