Rassie Erasmus selects strong side for crucial Thomond Park derby

Even without Stander, Munster pack has the grunt and grind to wear Ulster down

Munster v Ulster, Thomond Park, Saturday, 3pm - Live on Sky Sports.

This is probably the most significant Irish derby of the season to date. Aside from the internecine rivalries and bragging rights, Munster could take a giant stride toward not just the semi-finals but a home tie as well, while Ulster desperately need to win in order to maintain their hopes of competing in the play-offs for the fifth season running.

Munster, in second, go into this game with a nine-point buffer over fifth-placed Ulster – who trail the Scarlets on points difference – and thus know that a win will secure a place in the play-offs after missing out last season.

It would also leave them needing just one more win from their final two games, away to Treviso and at home to Connacht, to secure a semi-final at Thomond Park regardless of results elsewhere.


Ulster have slipped out of the top five on points difference after last week’s draw at home to Cardiff ended their six-game winning run, and defeat here could leave them precariously placed facing into their games away to the Ospreys and at home to Leinster.


Hence, despite the proximity of their Champions Cup semi-final against Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in seven days' time, Munster coach Rassie Erasmus has picked a strong side. There is still no place for the injured Conor Murray and CJ Stander, who looks the bigger doubt for the Saracens game, as Erasmus makes nine changes from the side that beat Glasgow 10-7 in Cork.

A nominal first-choice frontrow of Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan return en bloc, as do Donnacha Ryan, Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell, Keith Earls, Rory Scannell and Simon Zebo. Ian Keatley returns to the match-day squad for the first time since early March.

Les Kiss makes just three changes. Jacob Stockdale, Ulster's top try scorer in the Pro12 this season, returns at full-back for the injured Jared Payne, while Andrew Trimble is preferred to Craig Gilroy on the right wing, and Chris Henry returns at openside, with Seán Reidy shifting to number eight.

Munster have a remarkably good record of late in this fixture, winning four and drawing one of the sides last five meetings, with Ulster’s last victory coming in an end-of-season win here in May 2014.

Their smash-and-grab late comeback win in Belfast was hugely important in maintaining the momentum generated by their highly charged European Cup win over Glasgow at Thomond Park a week beforehand. It thus constituted their second win of an extraordinary 21-game sequence in which Munster have won 19 and lost two, and since their defeat to Leicester at Welford Road in December, they have won 12 of their last 13 matches.

Tight games

As was the case in Belfast and again last week, when they should have built up a bigger lead while on top, Munster have found ways to see out tight games, thanks in the main to the way they have all bought into Jacques Nienaber’s defensive system.

The 28 tries conceded in the Pro12 this season is the best record in the league, and they also boasted the best defensive record in the group stages of the Champions Cup as well.

Historically, Munster have often been distracted a week before a major European game, but that defence makes them consistently competitive in every game they contest.

By contrast, Ulster have no such distractions and averting an anticlimactic finale to their season will largely hinge on this result. They will bring plenty of firepower, with the in-form Stockdale and Charles Piutau giving them a sharp cutting edge if Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson have any kind of platform in which to utilise them.

Therein lies the rub though, for even without Stander, this Munster pack has the grunt and grind to wear them down, and Erasmus’s selection looks like a statement of intent.

MUNSTER: Simon Zebo; Darren Sweetnam, Francis Saili, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Tyler Bleyendaal, Duncan Williams; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Donnacha Ryan, Billy Holland; Peter O'Mahony (capt), Tommy O'Donnell, Jack O'Donoghue.

Replacements: Rhys Marshall, James Cronin, Stephen Archer, Dave O'Callaghan, Jean Deysel, Angus Lloyd, Ian Keatley, Andrew Conway.

ULSTER: J Stockdale, A Trimble (capt), L Marshall, S Olding, C Piutau; P Jackson, R Pienaar; A Warwick, R Best, W Herbst, K Treadwell, A O'Connor, I Henderson, C Henry, S Reidy.

Replacements: R Herring, C Black, R Ah You, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, S McCloskey, C Gilroy.

Referee: Marcus Mitrea (Italy)

Overall Guinness Pro12 head-to-head: Played 30, Munster won 16, Ulster won 13, drawn 1.

Last five meetings: (2014-15) Munster 21 Ulster 20; Ulster 23, Munster 23. (2015-16) Munster 32 Ulster 28; Ulster 7 Munster 9. (2016-17) Ulster 14 Munster 15.

Five-game Pro12 form guide: Munster W L W W W. Ulster W W W W D.

Leading Pro12 try scorers: Munster: Ronan O'Mahony 9, Andrew Conway, Dave Kilcoyne, Jaco Taute 5 each. Ulster: Jacob Stockdale 8, Charles Piutau 6, Ruan Pienaar 5.

Leading Pro12 points scorers: Munster: Tyler Bleyendaal 115. Ulster: Ruan Pienaar 100, Paddy Jackson 84.

Betting:(Paddy Power): 4/11 Munster, 19/1 Draw, 23/10 Ulster. Handicap odds (Ulster + 7pts) 16/5 Munster, 19/1 Draw, 9/2 Ulster.

Forecast: Munster to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times