Ulster hoping to make it third time lucky against Munster this season

O’Mahony, De Allende, Coombes and Archer return for Munster while Ulster fullback Lowry misses out

URC quarter-final: Ulster v Munster, Kingspan stadium, Friday, 7.35, Live on TG4, Premier Sports

Jaco Peyper’s opening whistle might come as a relief to the players and coaches who will get the opportunity to concentrate on rugby and shunt to one side all the peripheral concerns that have dominated the dialogue ahead of their United Rugby Championship quarter-final clash.

It won’t matter for 80 minutes if it is the final game in charge for the Munster coaching team as head coach Johann van Graan and JP Ferreira (defence coach) head for Bath and Stephen Larkham (attack/backs coach) returns to Australia.

There are no more questions to be answered about losing to Leinster or Toulouse because all those considerations are superseded by what happens on a pitch in Belfast. If Munster win then the narrative takes on a more positive tone, the season kicked down the road for a week at least.


If Ulster prevail, then they too will escape being shackled to their European disappointment, and that two-leg knock-out setback against Toulouse. Hopefully, the innate rivalry lives up to the promise of a feisty, open, entertaining tussle, full of high-quality rugby, albeit acknowledging that the winners will not care about the aesthetics of the contest.

There are a couple of milestones to be acknowledged: Ulster scrumhalf John Cooney makes his 100th appearance for the province while the opposing tighthead prop Stephen Archer (248) celebrates a notable landmark in becoming the second most capped Munster player of all time.

Ulster are without Michael Lowry, who hasn’t recovered from the injury he sustained against the Sharks, and he is replaced by Stewart Moore, who gets the chance to demonstrate his footballing versatility ahead of Rob Lyttle. Marty Moore’s season has been ended prematurely with concussion issues, so Tom O’Toole starts with Gareth Milasinovich named among the replacements.

Munster welcome back four players following the defeat to Leinster last time out: inspirational captain Peter O’Mahony, Gavin Coombes, back for his first game since the start of April, Archer and centre Damian de Allende. The grey cloud to the silver linings, the absence of Jack O’Donoghue (back), who has been outstanding this season. Fineen Wycherley shifts to the secondrow.

Van Graan has elected for a six-two split on the bench with Craig Casey and Ben Healy acting as backline cover. Ulster head coach Dan McFarland is more orthodox in his choice, with outhalf Ian Madigan and wing Ben Moxham coming into the matchday 23.

Munster won both league matches between the teams this season, including a first victory in Belfast for six years. The traditional collision points of set piece and breakdown generally have a massive bearing on the outcome of a game and what must also be factored in those calculations is how those aspects of the game are officiated.

Both sides have excellent lineout mauls, the scrum battle will be interesting while it will be instructive to track the fortunes of Alex Kendellen and Nick Timoney in the poaching stakes. The respective backlines boast power and pace in abundance, while game management at halfback is generally predicated on which pack provides the better platform.

The bookmakers have Ulster as two-point favourites on the handicap and that’s largely based on home advantage and perhaps the respective performances of the teams last time out. If the home side is to prevail, they will have to learn how to better manage the final quarter of matches, where they have been caught several times. Munster have shown the capacity to finish matches strongly, a useful characteristic in a game that suggests small margins in deciding the outcome.

ULSTER: S Moore; R Baloucoune, J Hume, S McCloskey, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; A Warwick, R Herring, T O’Toole; A O’Connor, I Henderson (capt); Marcus Rea, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.

Replacements: J Andrew, E O’Sullivan, G Milasinovich, K Treadwell, Matty Rea, N Doak, I Madigan, B Moxham.

MUNSTER: M Haley; A Conway, C Farrell, D de Allende, K Earls; J Carbery, C Murray; J Wycherley, N Scannell, S Archer; J Kleyn, F Wycherley; P O’Mahony (capt), A Kendellen, G Coombes.

Replacements: D Barron, J Loughman, J Ryan, J Jenkins, T Ahern, C Casey, B Healy, C Cloete.

Referee: J Peyper (South Africa).

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan

John O'Sullivan is an Irish Times sports writer