Pressure off Ulster as they go to Munster’s fortress
Both sides make widespread changes but Rob Penney's side still expected to run up big score
Munster head coach Rob Penney has made 10 changes to his line-up for the visit of Ulster to Thomond Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Zebre’s surprise late win over the Ospreys last week did Ulster a double favour, for having cemented their place in the play-offs the following night with their losing bonus point against Leinster, they can afford to ring the changes for this derby and target a semi-final next weekend; most probably against Leinster at the RDS.
Munster, third and trailing Glasgow by a point, will thus also be looking for an even more unlikely favour from Zebre in Scotstoun if they are to earn home advantage in a probable semi-final with the Scottish outfit.
Zebre, who themselves need to match Treviso’s result away to the Dragons to pip their rivals for the Italian place in next season’s European Rugby Champions Cup, would have to deny Glasgow a win of any hue for in the event of two sides finishing level, the first criteria is the number of wins. Glasgow currently have one more win than Munster.
Juggled his resources
Rob Penney has again juggled his resources after last week’s impressive 55-12 win in Edinburgh with 10 changes of his own. Dave Kilcoyne and Damien Varley return to the frontrow for James Cronin and Duncan Casey, who Munster revealed underwent surgery yesterday on his right shoulder.
Hence their short-term Kiwi signing Quentin MacDonald, whose three replacement cameos have totalled 24 minutes, is named on the bench.
Dave Foley returns to partner Paul O’Connell, with Sean Dougall and James Coughlan restored to a reshuffled backrow, and Paddy Butler moving from number eight to blindside.
Duncan Williams and Ian Keatley form a new half-back combination, with James Downey and Casey Laulala renewing their midfield partnership.
Simon Zebo reverts to wing from fullback, where Felix Jones is recalled. Partly on account of injuries, Munster also have the insurance policy of Tommy O’Donnell, Conor Murray, JJ Hanrahan and Keith Earls on the bench.
By contrast, Anscombe’s selection is comparatively callow. The 25-year-old David McIlwaine is the elder statesman in a new backline featuring academy players Stuart McCluskey and Rory Scholes, with a third academy player up front in Andrew Warwick, nominally a loosehead and who survived to tell the tale against Cian Healy last week.
Admittedly the backrow does have some experience and ballast, notably Dan Tuohy (who captains the side) and Nick Williams who, along with Rob Herring and Warwick, are the only survivors from last week.
This is a particularly big game for Tuohy, whose season has probably not panned out as he would have liked, least of all internationally.
Tuohy has captained Ulster for brief periods in matches before, but this interprovincial clash will be the first time he has lead the province from the start of a game, something which the 28 year-old views as a huge honour:
“Mark Anscombe pulled me to one side on Monday and said that I was going to captain the team – I was delighted. For me, I am just going to concentrate on my own game, get the lads behind me and hopefully we can put in a decent performance tomorrow night.”
The bench also features three more Academy players in hooker Kyle McCall, backrower Conor Joyce and scrumhalf David Shanahan. That trio, along with Bronson Ross and Adam Macklin, have 11 senior caps between them.
Of course the flip side to all this is that a young Ulster team, sprinkled with some seniority and experience, are in an utterly no-lose situation and can afford to swing from the hip.
By contrast, Munster will be expected to run up the points, but the forecast promises unpleasantly wet and windy conditions.
Ulster beat Munster 29-19 at Ravenhill in the New year, but have not achieved a season’s double over Munster for five seasons. Indeed, since that remarkably clinical and opportunistic 37-11 win at Thomond Park in the new year of 2009, Ulster have lost on their last four treks to the Limerick venue, by scores of 24-10, 35-10, 36-8 an 24-10 again.
Munster will also want to put to rights their first home defeat of the season a fortnight ago to Glasgow, which looks like proving very costly. Given the conditions, it may not be pretty, nor conducive to Munster’s speed and finishing out wide.
But with O’Connell in their ranks, Munster oughtn’t to put the cart before the horse, and thus should get the job done comfortably enough in the end, albeit it may not alter the top four, leaving Munster with a trek to in-form Glasgow and Ulster taking the drive down to the RDS in an effort to prevent Leinster ending their season for a fourth season in succession.