Ulster can keep season alive against second string hosts

Ulster's John Cooney will miss out on this evening's clash with Munster.

Munster head coach Johann van Graan has chosen a virtual second strength team for this evening’s Guinness PRO14 clash with Ulster at Thomond Park while his counterpart Jonno Gibbes goes into the game short two of his most valuable players, full-back Charles Piutau and scrum-half John Cooney. 

However, both men insist they are treating the encounter with all seriousness even if the result is of far greater significance to the visitors.

Munster have already qualified for next week’s playoff but the importance of restoring morale after Sunday’s defeat by Racing 92 coupled with the traditional desire to come out on top in Irish derbies has not been lost on van Graan.

“We are coming up against a top quality Ulster side that has been playing really good rugby over the last few weeks,” said the South African. 

“We have made changes to the team. We want to freshen up quite a few guys for a quarter-final and potentially a semi-final and final but that’s a long way off into the future and it’s all about Ulster this week.

“This is an Irish derby. Ulster are playing fantastic rugby, Munster are playing at Thomond. It remains a very important game as with every single game with Munster. So we went flat out in terms of our preparation to firstly put in a good performance and then win the game.”

A five-point win for Ulster and the failure of Edinburgh to take anything from their game against Glasgow would lead to a repeat meeting of the sides in the quarter-finals at Thomond Park next weekend, but that won’t come into van Graan’s thinking: “That’s quite possible but we’ll just stick to our process. We don’t look two weeks in advance, get through this week, see where we are injury wise, who we play next weekend and then we go forward.”

Sammy Arnold, voted Young Player of the Year this week, is the only survivor of the XV that started the European Cup semi-final. Mike Sherry captains the side for the first time since 2013 as he and front-row colleague James Cronin make their 100th appearances for the province. 

Duncan Williams has recovered from a nasty facial injury sooner than expected and lines out at scrum-half.

Ulster arrive in Thomond Park this evening on the back of a hat-trick of wins over Edinburgh, Ospreys and Glasgow, with a potentially disastrous campaign finally showing signs of life. 

After all the recent controversy and criticism surrounding the province, they would enjoy nothing more than to keep that run going and make Munster their fourth successive victim.

Ulster can keep season alive against second string hosts

They will also be keen to prove to Brian O’Driscoll that they are not “a little bit of a basket case” as the former Ireland captain claimed during the week. 

Ireland’s free-scoring winger Jacob Stockdale clearly reflected the views of the entire squad when describing the comment as “ridiculous”.

“We are competing for the PRO14 play-offs and actually in quite a good place,” Stockdale said. “I think he (O’Driscoll) could probably count on his hands how many times he has been up at Ulster rugby in the last five years.”

Soon to depart head coach Gibbes has chosen a side fully capable of dealing with a below-strength Munster line-up, including Irish stars Stockdale and the returning Rory Best and Iain Henderson. Craig Gilroy is also back on the wing after suspension.

However, very much on the debit side is the absence of free-scoring scrum-half John Cooney, formerly of Connacht and Leinster, who is suffering from concussion, and outstanding full-back Charles Piutau is unavailable for “family reasons”.

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