Munster close to full strength for Ulster trip

Munster will be close to full strength for their trip north to Ulster on Saturday with Paul O’Connell set to start the crucial Guinness Pro12 clash after recovering from a shoulder injury.

Head coach Anthony Foley will be without loosehead prop James Cronin for another week with a bruised knee while more seriously, Dave O’Callaghan has been ruled out for the rest of the campaign after the back rower tore medial cruciate ligaments in his left knee during Munster A’s match with Ulster Ravens in Naas last week.

New signing Tyler Bleyendaal did come successfully through that game having recovered from a career-threatening neck injury suffered as a Canterbury player, and Foley does not rule out a senior debut this season for the New Zealander, who now gives the management further options at fly-half and inside centre.

It is O’Connell’s fitness, though that will give Munster the biggest of boosts as they head to Belfast looking for a rare win at Ravenhill that would provide a major step towards a home semi-final in the Pro12 play-offs later this month.

The 35-year-old Ireland captain has not played since April 11 when Munster hammered Edinburgh at Murrayfield, his only game for the province since he lifted the RBS 6 Nations trophy at the same stadium a month previously.

“He trained fully today so it’s like everything, we need to check him tomorrow but he seems fine today,” Foley said of the veteran second row.

As for Bleyendaal, Foley said opportunities for game time were limited at this stage of the season but with two more regular season leagùe games to play and potentially two knockout rounds, he did not rule out a senior debut for the 24-year-old before the end of the campaign.

“We have got to manage him until the end of the season,” Foley said. “He is a talented player, he has come back, he has been diligent in everything he has done. It has been hard for him to come all the way over to this side of the world and sit on the periphery of things. But he has done everything that has been asked from him.

“I think that it is important for us that we get some value out of him before the end of the season and if we can do that it provides competition in the 10, 12 slot. So hopefully we see him in the red in a Pro12 game but that is not guaranteed either.”

Whether Bleyendaal features against Ulster on Saturday or not, the northern province are fully expecting Ireland wing Keith Earls, with five tries in 10 appearances since returning from long-term knee injury, to have a big impact on proceedings.

Darren Cave admitted yesterday that Ulster are wary of Earls, who has shaken off the knee injury which wrecked the first half of his season and scored four tries in his last five games for Munster.

“Munster have scored a lot of tries recently and Keith has probably been the one who is giving them a lot of spark,” centre Cave said. “I’ve known him for 10-plus years from training with him at Irish camp and he is a class player at the worst of times.

“At the minute it just seems like the ball is bouncing for him and he is causing teams a lot of problems. He is someone we are very wary of coming into Saturday’s game.”

Munster are confident of having a large travelling contingent cheering them on in Belfast this weekend with 1,200 tickets purchased, the most bought by a visiting club from its official allocation in the Guinness Pro12 this season, according to the province. That number could behigher come kick-off time, with Munster supporters likely to have purchased more tickets on general sale.

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