Guinness Pro 12
Ulster v Munster
Today: Kingspan Stadium, 2.40pm
TV: Sky Sports 1
Momentum. Both Ulster and Munster have it going into today’s penultimate round Guinness Pro12 clash in Belfast and one province will have to depart Ravenhill having lost it.
With a team unbeaten at home in the Pro12 this season and a poor return on their recent visits north for the away side, it suggests Munster will have the hard job of picking themselves up for the final round but yesterday’s news that the league’s leading try scorer will be absent from the Ulster backline suggests that maybe the balance of power could be swinging south.
A hamstring injury suffered in training by Ulster’s Craig Gilroy, the standout wing of the Pro12 season with 11 league tries, represents a blow to home hopes of leapfrogging Munster into second place ahead of their final regular season game, a difficult trip to leaders Glasgow Warriors.
Ulster lie a point behind Munster with two games to go and started the weekend three adrift of the Scots, who were visiting fourth-placed Ospreys last night. Gilroy presented Anthony Foley’s side with a major headache in a talented Ulster backline with threats throughout, and the Ireland wing was the player mentioned most frequently when Munster players were asked this week to assess potential dangers.
So even if Ulster will not wither in the absence of one man, it is a boost to the visitors’ morale that Gilroy will be absent from the fray when these two in-form teams meet this afternoon.
Contrast that with Foley’s ability to pick a virtually full-strength team as Munster go in search of a seventh victory in eight starts since the Champions Cup campaign came to a crushing halt at Saracens in mid-January.
Foley’s side has swept almost all before it since that devastating loss in north London in round five of the European pool competition.
They have lost just once, albeit shambolically, at Ospreys during the Six Nations and in securing a top-four play-off berth have soared to the top of the Pro12 try-scoring charts, with three wins in a row producing an average of five tries per game, against Connacht, Edinburgh and Treviso, each of whom still had plenty to play for in their own right.
Being able to throw Paul O’Connell back into the mix after a shoulder injury, and in unison with a fit-again Donnacha Ryan for a second row partnership Munster have been denied since December 2013, is icing on the cake in that regard, with Foley also restoring Denis Hurley to inside centre for Rory Scannell and rotating his hookers with Eusebio Guinazu in for Duncan Casey, who drops to the bench.
Yet Foley knows Ulster’s firepower is spread throughout their side and though Gilroy will be missing, replaced by Peter Nelson on the left wing in the only change to Neil Doak’s line-up from the win over Leinster in the previous round, Munster’s return of one win in their last seven visits to Ravenhill means Munster will not have been allowed to travel north yesterday with complacency in their baggage.
A 16-6 victory in October 10 was the last time Munster returned home with a success and Hurley stands in the minority in today’s starting XV, along with Billy Holland on the bench, as players to have experienced that.
Foley, though, also recognised the Ravenhill atmosphere Ulster supporters generate as crucial to overcome by making your opportunities count.
“You have got to have a strong referee up there because it is a hostile environment and Nigel Owens is a strong referee so there won’t be any excuses after the game,” the Munster head coach said. “Any team that plays at home at this level and getting to this stage of the season, there is a big advantage playing at home.
“The crowd will get in there and will put us under pressure. They will build momentum against us from the terraces but if you go about your job in the right manner you can flip that around as well, so it’s important to understand that the game flows and it’s important that when we are on top in the game, that we capitalise.
“In the past, in particular last year (when Munster lost 29-19), we were on top coming to the closing stages of the game, didn’t capitalise and we could have won that game. They are things that you kick yourself with afterwards but having for years and years gone up there and rarely won, you do understand the importance that when you do have a good opportunity, you have got to take it.”
Securing victory ahead of a final round game at home to the Dragons in Cork next week would go a long way to ensuring a home semi-final and just as importantly avoiding a return trip to Ravenhill on May 23, with the final at the same venue a week later.
“We could be going up there again, you don’t know what way it is going to transpire over the next fortnight, but there could be a few trips up to Belfast if we don’t get the job done this weekend, so it is important that we focus in on this weekend and make sure we get our game going.
“You just look at the names we’ve got in our squad and the experience that we have in and around our squad. Obviously people learn from past losses and we are no different. We will go up there and we will try to impose ourselves on Ulster as best we can.
“I can guarantee you they won’t allow that. They will come at us as physically as they can early on in the game. You saw that in the Leinster game, anything around the breakdown, coming through the breakdown, kicking ball, getting their feet in, flying over the top, sealing off, they will come at you physically at the breakdown. We have got to manage that.”
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