Munster ready to end depleted Ulster's unbeaten record
It’s Munster versus Ulster at Thomond Park but this fixture will be a shadow of what we witnessed in last year’s European quarter-final. When seeing the Ulster line-up for this fixture, all the sabre-rattling by the English and French clubs over changing the format of European rugby does not seem such a bad idea.
Clearly, those who plough money into the Pro 12 (sponsors, broadcast rights holders, etc) cannot convince the Irish provinces to field anything resembling full-strength sides when these festive period fixtures roll around.
Ulster are sending a dud team down to Limerick this evening. It’s not their fault. New head coach Mark Anscombe is merely playing the hand he has been dealt; their form this season means more home grown talent than ever before have become central figures in the Ireland set-up.
The only way to convince the provinces to take these fixtures seriously is to make qualification into the Heineken Cup be dependent of final placing in the Pro 12. Not that Ulster would be overly bothered by that at this juncture anyway.
They are nine points clear of second placed Scarlets, with a game in hand, and 14 points above Munster in third. That should be reduced to nine points by 7pm.
This game should also mark the end of their hugely impressive 11-game unbeaten run in the league. Presuming everyone was fit and healthy in Anscombe’s squad, only one of the starting XV would retain his place. That would be number eight Roger Wilson. At least that in itself opens up some debate. Luke Marshall is at inside centre tonight instead of Paddy Wallace while Craig Gilroy is on the wing. Of course, Marshall excelled in the non-cap meeting with Fiji in November while Gilroy bordered on world class in his showing against Argentina a week later.
Paul Marshall is another whose form at scrumhalf may yet see Ruan Pienaar finishing out the campaign as his halfback partner. Paddy Jackson would dearly love to atone for some poor place-kicking performances recently but Niall O’Connor is named at outhalf.
Munster coach Rob Penney, in stark contrast, has released a strong team.
David Kilcoyne, Donnacha Ryan and Keith Earls are unavailable, Paul O’Connell is still injured, but Penney has rolled out plenty of front-liners fresh from Ireland camp like Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray.
Those players who don’t command regular starting roles are also proven performers. In Earls’ absence, Casey Laulala partners James Downey in the centre with Denis Hurley ahead of Felix Jones at fullback, while Simon Zebo starts on the wing.
Ronan O’Gara is on the bench as Ian Keatley gets another opportunity to impress at stand-off. Not that they’ll need the reinforcements here but Dave O’Callaghan and James Coughlan can also be unleashed if necessary.
“We have a few big weeks ahead of us, Cardiff follow this one and then we have the two Heineken Cup games, two must-win matches with bonus points and all that needed,” said Damien Varley, in at hooker ahead of this season’s first-choice Mike Sherry.
Munster look capable of smashing the 14-point handicap given by the bookmakers.