Munster have plenty in reserve
Munster v Ulster:WITH THE cocoon of festive rugby providing the televised entertainment, the Irish rugby team began preparations for the Six Nations behind closed doors in Dublin this week.
It means these interprovincial meetings do not really carry much weight any more (unless it is Leinster versus Munster a week before a Heineken Cup weekend).
Ulster got Paddy Wallace back from Ireland but this team selection is primarily a test of their strength in depth. Munster’s second string has already proven itself against New Zealand and more recently Australia but they also profit from the return of Tony Buckley and Tomás O’Leary to the reserves bench.
Others have come back in from the cold as well.
No disrespect to Seán Cronin, who is increasingly looking like the long-term future of Irish hooking, but at some point around the hour mark the problems at hooker on this island may come to an end.
Flannery’s introduction to the fray at Thomond Park opposite Rory Best, with perhaps referee Dudley Philips stalling a put-in to heighten the dramatic impact, would allow the duo restart their long war over the Ireland number two jersey. Seriously though, the return of the dynamic Flannery, presuming he is over his multiple injuries, and the reassuringly consistent Best is a huge fillip in the national scheme of things.
Remember these are the Grand Slam hookers. Of course, the Irish selection issues are merely a subplot in this Magners League encounter between the leaders, Munster on 40 points, and sixth placed Ulster on 28 points.
Also, the visitors will surely be hunting atonement for their shockingly poor display at home to Leinster five days back.
In the immediate aftermath of that game, stand-in Ulster captain Johann Muller’s only crumb of comfort was that they could address being bullied at home by fronting up in Limerick. Only problem is head coach Brian McLaughlin has dropped/rested (take your pick) 12 of the side that started the 30-13 smothering by Leinster.
Now, this may have been a pre-planned selection policy. If disgruntled mutterings from the Ravenhill press box are any indication, it may also be a warning to some high-profile recent signings that more is required to justify their salaries.
With so many Munster internationals missing, this game does provide a safety net for McLaughlin’s coaching team to view a different halfback combination. The Ireland camp have made no secret over the years of their desire to utilise Wallace at outhalf while Paul Marshall gets a chance to showcase his snappy service at number nine.
Ruan Pienaar is completely omitted and despite starting for the Springboks in the first Test of 2009 Lions series at outhalf, Ulster continue to employ him as a scrumhalf. The silver lining is the promising Paddy Jackson gets to provide cover for Wallace.
Munster have also made wholesale changes from the side that held off Connacht at the Sportsground on December 27th.
Only Peter Stringer and Denis Hurley remain in the same backline positions while Paul Warwick switches to outhalf as Ronan O’Gara “is rested by national dictate”, according to a Munster press release.
Up front, foreign props Wian du Preez and Peter Borlase remain as does Niall Ronan and the athletic secondrow Ian Nagle.
Donnacha Ryan is redeployed to the blindside flank as 36-year-old Alan Quinlan sees eight weeks erased from his season due to a dislocated elbow suffered in Galway.
The weather disruption has been replaced this week by players being involved in the Irish training camp. Munster training took place at the Cork Institute for Technology without Stringer, Mick O’Driscoll and Denis Leamy, who continues to captain the side until Paul O’Connell’s returns from suspension. O’Leary and Buckley were also handed back to Tony McGahan and the Munster coach promptly added them to the match-day squad despite their lack of involvement in training.
Despite the disruptions to, and changes in, the Munster ranks they look far too strong to be troubled by what in many departments in a development Ulster team.
MUNSTER: S Deasy; D Howlett, K Earls, S Tuitupou, Denis Hurley; P Warwick, P Stringer; W du Preez, D Varely, P Borlase; I Nagle, M O’Driscoll; D Ryan, N Ronan, D Leamy (capt). Replacements: J Flannery, Darragh Hurley, T Buckley, B Holland, T ODonnell, T OLeary, L Mafi, B Murphy.
ULSTER: J Smith; T Seymour, I Whitten, L Marshall, S Danielli; P Wallace, P Marshall; B Young, R Best (capt), D Fitzpatrick; T Barker, R Caldwell; TJ Anderson, W Faloon, R Diack. Replacements: A Kyriacou, T Court, BJ Botha, N McComb, C Henry, I Porter, P Jackson, D McIlwaine.
Referee: D Philips (IRFU).
Verdict: Munster to win.
On TV:Live RTE/BBC