Munster have a gilt-edged opportunity to finish 2012 on a high when they welcome a weakened Ulster side to Thomond Park this evening (5.30pm) for an intriguing RaboDirect Pro12 clash.
Revenge, both for last April’s Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat on the same ground and September’s league reverse at Ravenhill, will be high on Munster’s list of boxes to tick but so too will be attaining the error-free consistency, accuracy and intensity over 80 minutes that will be required for the challenges awaiting Rob Penney’s men in the New Year.
Having been overpowered by Saracens in round four of the Heineken Cup pool stages a fortnight ago, Munster got back on a winning track with a narrow and somewhat fortunate victory over Connacht at the Sportsground last Saturday night.
With back-to-back bonus-point wins at Edinburgh on January 13 and over Racing Metro a week later essential to European progress, Munster’s bid for a quarter-final berth starts tonight. Yet as understrength as Ulster will be, having made 11 changes from the side which left Leinster reeling in Belfast a week ago, Munster will still have to get their game revving if they wish to maintain their top-four place in the RaboDirect Pro12 and hit the ground running for the fast-approaching big Heineken Cup games.
Penney’s side are 14 points adrift of this unbeaten Ulster outfit, which, when similarly stretched has still managed to eke out wins at home and away to record 11 victories from as many starts in the Rabo.
Munster, therefore, must be on their guard to avert a second defeat of the season to Mark Anscombe’s side, for whom only No.8 Roger Wilson remains from the sides which started the European double-header with Northampton in mid-December.
The Munster head coach is taking few chances in naming a side as strong as he could hope for after a week which saw Declan Kidney gather his Ireland players for a national squad training camp in Carton House and has drafted Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray andSimon Zebo into his starting line-up as well as placing Ronan O’Gara on the replacements’ bench.
Donncha O’Callaghan will resume second-row duties alongside Billy Holland, while Felix Jones, an early injury casualty at Saracens onDecember 16, joins O’Gara on the bench as Denis Hurley makes his 100th Munster appearance by starting at full-back, the 25thMunster player to reach a century of competitive caps.
Hooker Damian Varley alsoreturns from injury after missing the Connacht win, fully aware of the need to lay down a marker with a big month of games coming up.
“Ulster are on an unbelievable roll, there is no doubt about that,” Varley said. “But they have been growing for some time now. It has just clicked for them this season.
“They have some great players up there and they are running away with it at the top of the table.
“But it would be a great way for us to finish 2012 by winning against them. We have a few big weeks ahead of us, Cardiff follow this one (on January 5, in Cork) and then we have the two Heineken Cup games, two must-win matches with bonus points and all that needed.
“There is a lot of rugby to be played this season but we are looking no further than Ulster.”
With O’Gara kept in reserve, Ian Keatley is retained at fly-half, where his defensive display in Galway last weekend was as effective as any facet of his play in preventing Connacht wing Fetu’u Vainikolo from scoring what seemed a certain first-half try.
Half-back partner Peter Stringer made a similar, equally vital challenge to stop George Naupou getting over the line but the veteran scrum-half has to make do with a place among the replacements as Murray is restored to the number nine jersey.
Ulster have also made changes at half-back with Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson not travelling, leaving livewire Paul Marshall at scrum-half and Niall O’Connor at 10, the fly-half looking to stake a claim to a more permanent berth with a strong outing in Limerick after the first string took care of Leinster.
“It’s a great opportunity for a few guys and some of the younger guys to put their hands up and that is all Mark (Anscombe) asks for is that guys keep pushing themselves and make it difficult for him to pick a team every week,” O’Connor said.
“The Leinster result was massive, we had talked about it all week how we had a poor record against them and that was something that the guys wanted to put right.
“A lot of guys had never beaten Leinster and coming off the back of the Northampton defeat, it was key to get the win and get back on track again. It was a great win and puts us back in a good place.
“Thomond Park is an intimidating and tough place to go but it is also very enjoyable and there is a great atmosphere, the Munster fans are very loud and passionate.
“It’s a good place to go and play rugby, rather than worry about the .... fear of Thomond Park, it’s a matter of trying to soak up the atmosphere and put in a good performance.”
Both wing Craig Gilroy and centre Luke Marshall have fond recent memories of Limerick having shone for an Ireland XV in the 53-0 demolition of Fiji at Thomond Park last month while Ulster give a first start of the season for Adam D’Arcy at full-back. Neil McComb and Robbie Diack are the only forwards retained from the team which beat Leinster 27-19 eight days ago with the former partnering Lewis Stevenson, who returns to the second row after eight weeks out injured.
Munster’s current front-row strength in depth sees Wian du Preez, Varley and BJ Botha look to score against a new Ulster combination in Callum Black, Rob Herring and Adam Macklin while the home side’s deeper bench resources, the in-form Ulster loosehead Tom Court aside, should also help see Penney’s side through for a morale-boosting victory at the league leader’sexpense.
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