Ulster v Munster preview: Ravenhill roar can inspire home side to victory

Home semi-final the likely reward for winners of pivotal Pro12 clash

Roger Wilson will make his 132nd league appearance against Munster, a record for any Ulster player. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho

Roger Wilson will make his 132nd league appearance against Munster, a record for any Ulster player. Photograph: Darren Kidd/Presseye/Inpho

 

The stage could hardly be set any better. The two in-form Irish contenders for the title meet at an 18,000-capacity Kingspan Stadium with the prize at stake not just bragging rights but the distinct possibility of the winner earning a home semi-final two weeks hence – quite conceivably against the same opponents.

As befits such a grand occasion, it will be overseen by the best referee around in Nigel Owens, which could also be significant. One could well understand Anthony Foley welcoming the appointment of a strong referee given the pressure the home crowd – albeit enhanced by the presence of an estimated 1,500 or so Munster fans – apply on the officials.

Sense of injustice

Tom Court

However, Ulster have not lost a league game at home since, and are the only team with a 10 from 10 record going into the final two rounds. Roger Wilson, long since a crowd favourite, will become Ulster’s most capped player in the league when the 33-year-old lines out for his 132nd game in the competition, thus taking over from Paddy Wallace.

Neil Doak makes just one change, after winger Craig Gilroy picked up a hamstring strain in training this week, and he is replaced on the left wing by Peter Nelson.

Munster welcome back Paul O’Connell, who will partner Donnacha Ryan in the secondrow for the first time since Perpignan away in December 2013. Argentinian hooker Eusebio Guiñazú trades places with Duncan Casey this week, while Denis Hurley returns at inside centre.

With the carrot of a home semi-final and the knowledge that the final will be held at the Kingspan Stadium on May 30th, everything is set for Ulster to lift silverware for the first time since winning the league in 2006. Recalling how Leinster mucked up similarly advantageous circumstances in the 2003 Heineken Cup, while Ulster’s list of near misses is not on a par with, say Clermont Auvergne, you wonder if the route to a trophy can be too gilt-edged, and if a team can want success too much.

“Every club wants success,” reasons defence coach Johnny Bell calmly. “Define success: is that winning trophies or is that being at the business end of tournaments on a regular basis? Ulster have achieved consistency that we are now at the business end of competitions on a regular basis and it has taken a lot of hard work, a lot of blood, sweat and toil on and off the pitch.

“We want silverware. Every team is the same. They want and are determined to bring back silverware at the end of the day.

“Can you want it too much? If you won’t want it enough, you’ll pay the price. It’s about us making sure emotionally we’re in the right place because, I’ll tell you what, Munster want it this weekend and if we don’t want it enough this weekend, we’ll be on the receiving end.”

Ulster’s handsome wins over Connacht and Leinster may have been partially indebted to the latter two having engaged in European combat the week before, whereas Munster are well rested. Furthermore, Munster may have been mentally off guard when eventually obtaining a bonus point last time out in a defensively flawed performance at home to Treviso.

Yardstick The preceding 34-3 win away to Edinburgh may be a better yardstick, and they do have the league’s best away record. With O’Connell back again, they’ll be able to throw a blanket over their pack. Their maul is in potent form and they have enough about them to win here.

There are a series of intriguing match-ups for the watching Irish coaching ticket – Dan Touhy v Ryan, Iain Henderson v Peter O’Mahony, Chris Henry v Tommy O’Donnell and not forgetting a first league head-to-head between Ruan Pienaar and Conor Murray – Ulster may have an edge at out-half given Paddy Jackson’s superb form of late.

Munster have as much finishing out wide in Simon Zebo and Keith Earls, yet Ulster’s defensive and attacking shape has seemed better of late too, and they just look to have more about them, as well as the home crowd to pull them through.

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