Keatley man of the match but James Cronin’s cameo was crucial to Munster’s victory

Tighthead Fitzpatrick has vital role for Ulster in tonight’s season-defining H Cup battle with Leicester

If they are to achieve success against a limited but dogged Leicester Tigers side in tonight’s Heineken Cup encounter at Ravenhill, Ulster will need to play creative rugby, making full use of lively, skilled backs such as Tommy Bowe. Photograph: Chris Fairweather/Inpho

If they are to achieve success against a limited but dogged Leicester Tigers side in tonight’s Heineken Cup encounter at Ravenhill, Ulster will need to play creative rugby, making full use of lively, skilled backs such as Tommy Bowe. Photograph: Chris Fairweather/Inpho


Munster’s outhalf Ian Keatley got man of the match last week against Leinster by varying his point of contact through multiple touches, hitting the line, and cleverly utilising assets such as James Downey’s power carry off Munster’s first second-half lineout, resulting in three points.

Add Munster loosehead sub James Cronin and they gained a valuable home win. On 61:58 minutes, Cronin got a straight power push on Mike Ross while possibly slipping his bind slightly to gain a match-winning penalty (for 19-15) against stiff opposition (Ross, Seán Cronin and Cian Healy).

Along with Stephen Archer, he didn’t stop in the scrums and put himself about in those dark spots: fringes, rucks and counter rucks, powering low and hard, threatening scrumhalf Isaac Boss.

In his cameo he produced a beautiful combination of scrummaging power and menace. He made a great steal on 66 minutes from a bobbling Leinster attacking breakdown; brain, brawn and belligerence.

Those quick decisions he makes around the ball and breakdown are clever and come with explosive acceleration. On 69 minutes, he carried a one-out pass from Earls off a breakdown from Hurley and was triple-teamed by Jimmy Gopperth, Devin Toner and Martin Moore but gained valuable seconds to ensure Munster kept possession.

Multitude of variation
I highlighted Seán Cronin’s strike, or lack thereof, against Cardiff two weeks ago because getting the ball back is not the point; the timing and channel of its arrival is. Channel one, two or three affords a multitude of variation off backrow and outside backs.

Put simply, if your fullback can predict he can penetrate.

On 71:36, like against Cardiff, Boss threaded the ball in and while it was sitting there Munster got a massive right-hand side shove to win it; loss of possession and loss of strike attack for the talented Leinster backline, a double whammy!

What a season-defining battle awaits Ulster tonight. Leicester dogged out a draw against Northampton Saints last week but I venture they are not the team of yore.

They’re struggling with basic skills and are down key players.

Outhalf Toby Flood, loosehead Logovi’i Mulipola and their scrum and lineout maul are their attacking threat.

By the way, with George North, Alex Corbisiero, Sam Dickinson and an improving Saints’ discipline, tomorrow’s game between Castre and Saints is a must see.

Saints gained 311 metres to Leicester’s 147 but conceded 19 penalties with their scrum in tatters.

Add the paltry seven penalties conceded by Leicester and Ulster will have to be very accurate through the boot and rugby to gain the victory.

That said, Flood at 10 (with 60 per cent kicking success) proved a running threat and Paddy Jackson must be supported on the inside to give him confidence to close the space and stop Flood scuttling through.

Leicester’s mental threat will come from the first scrum of the day where deep in their 22 against Saints they wanted much more than the ball, they wanted to get the upperhand up front by murdering Saints; watch out Ulster.

Driving him backwards
At the second scrum (the first to Saints in an attacking slot) Mulipola (the image of Martín Castrogiovanni) was able to dip slightly, post-engage, angle in and lift Saints tighthead Tom Mercey, depowering him and driving him backwards, with Dylan Hartley very high throughout.

Penalty turnovers are one aspect but it will also affect the channel ball on offer for Ulster tonight and will stunt mentally but also tactically, where Ulster will need to play creative rugby utilising lively, skilled backs off the scrum, as when Craig Gilroy scored his try in Thomond Park off the right-hand scrum. Conversely, Leicester’s comfort in set-piece gives a platform to attack with Ulster tied down.

Connacht managed to unsettle both tightheads in Galway and Leicester will want to do likewise. Their loosehead does slip outside his man with a snap dip, targeting the Ulster tighthead’s chest to power upwards and totally depower the drive, ultimately walking Ulster backwards.

With the absence of a hit the power of Ulster tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick’s bind allied to his height is crucial to limiting Mulipola. Like Munster, Leicester pack number four Louis Deacon behind their tighthead for added oomph.

Leicester are clever and eke out so much that’s not theirs. Hooker Tom Youngs stands in front of his own line for every throw, sending it straight but down his side; watch out, officials. They have nice variation in their lineouts, with quick over the ground full extension lifts.

Massive lift
Several times Mulipola circles around behind Kitchener to give a massive lift. Kitchener is their main target in the middle or coming forward into space. When won, Leicester love to put the ball, especially off slow ball, through one flat forward to a hard-line running extra forward out wider.

Great creative opportunities will abound for Ulster, especially as Leicester’s broken field defensive line when chasing kicks can be lazy.

Likewise off turnover ball or multiphase play, quick hands targeting weak shoulders will suck their shape.

Ulster’s breakdown king, Chris Henry’s “solid core” will provide opportunities out wide that must be taken as Leicester are vulnerable – but Fitzpatrick’s scrummaging must make it so.

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