Ulster’s Iain Henderson insists that individual battles for World Cup places will be the last thing on his mind when he confronts Peter O’Mahony and Munster in the mutually crucial Guinness PRO12 clash at Kingspan Stadium tomorrow afternoon.
Both provinces require the win to further their ambitions of clinching a vital home berth for the upcoming play-offs, with second-placed Munster lying just one point and one rung of the league ladder above an Ulster side unbeaten at home this season.
Euro seedings for next season will also be affected by tomorrow’s result, but Henderson has clearly had enough of the questions about subplots at this stage, chief of which is the head-to-head between himself and O’Mahony for that blindside spot in Joe Schmidt’s affections.
“It frustrates me having to say it,” he explained. “It has become a bit of a cliche, but at the minute everything is geared towards my Ulster season. And not even the Ulster season, these next couple of games before the semi-final.
“Just to get those two nailed off, do as best as we can, get as many points as we can to try and ensure this home semi-final leading in to the home final.”
Be that as it may, there is nothing to stop the rest of us salivating over the localised battle between Henderson, whom many believe is ready to claim a starting spot for Ireland, and O’Mahony who is the current and impressive incumbent in the number six jersey.
The Ulster man knows what is coming his way.
“He’s an excellent player. A very smart player. Obviously, he has massive experience with him. He works so well with Paul O’Connell. Those two bounce off each other extremely well in terms of the way they play, their work ethic and their detail level and the intensity they both play at.
“In saying that, that’s who you want to be playing against. You want to be playing against the best players. You don’t want to be playing against players week-in week -out who you know you’re going to just top, or who you know won’t provide you with as much of a challenge as Peter will or the Leinster back row.
“That’s why the inter-pro series are such intense games, because you are playing against the best players in the league.”
That and the very human desire to get one over on your neighbour.
Ulster have already accounted for Connacht and Leinster in recent weeks, the latter victory ending the holders’ already slim hopes of making the play-offs and amounting to some revenge for a string of defeats in recent high-stake meetings between those two.
How satisfying was that 26-10 win?
“Loads, if I’m being honest. We know Leinster this last few years have done a job on Ulster… slightly disappointed it wasn’t in the semi-final. It would have been good to do that. However, we’ve been saying for the past two games: ‘these are our semi-finals now’.”
Munster will be a tougher nut to crack than a Leinster team playing five days after an extra-time Champions Cup defeat to Toulon in France and one that knew a semi-final slot was a long shot.
Anthony Foley’s side pitches up with the league’s best away record for starters.
“Their set-piece can be very dangerous. If you let them get their tails up with their set-piece… we’ve seen what their scrums can do to some teams. However, we can see what happens when their scrum didn’t do too well against Saracens (last January).”
“Obviously, if Paul is playing their line-out is another massive strength. Their maul is another massive strength. We have been tortured by some team’s mauls throughout this season but if we have our mindset right though we can destroy mauls. Like Leicester came over here and tried to maul us.
“That didn’t turn out too well for them.”
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