Munster’s need to win is more acute than Ulster’s
‘I think for us it’s a massive game because we haven’t been good enough so far this season’
Munster’s Alby Mathewson: he will make his debut as a short-term cover for the sidelined Conor Murray. Photograph: Getty Images
Munster v Ulster, Thomond Park, Saturday, 7.35pm (Live on Eir Sport)
It’s still September. The season is still in its teething stages. There are another seven or eight months of rugby to be played, and the Guinness Pro14 is only four rounds old, with another 17 series of games remaining. Yet, although it sounds ridiculous to suggest as much, Munster are almost in must-win territory.
Their need certainly seems more acute than Ulster’s after two away defeats, the second of which was last weekend’s 37-13 defeat to the Cardiff Blues. By contrast, though they certainly won’t see it as such, this looks like something of a free hit for Ulster after backing up last season’s five-game winning run with three wins and a draw to date, thereby remaining the competition’s only unbeaten side.
The margins have been tight, for sure, Ulster winning two games with a last kick and ditto last week’s remarkable 39-all draw away to the Cheetahs. But that demonstrates how well they are digging in for each other having seemingly been revived and refreshed after last season’s difficult campaign.
By contrast, as Munster’s forwards coach Jerry Flannery admitted this week, “for us the main thing now is we need to get a result and get things working again because two [wins] from four is not good enough”.
To that end, Johann van Graan has made eight changes, and Munster will finally unveil the 32-year-old four times capped ex-All Blacks’ scrum-half Alby Mathewson, who will make his debut as a short-term cover for the sidelined Conor Murray after obtaining a work permit.
Furthermore, the fit-again Irish summer tourists Keith Earls and Niall Scannell will make their first starts of the season, while Mike Haley, Dan Goggin, Dave Kilcoyne, Billy Holland and Tommy O’Donnell all come into the side as well.
Munster have lost only once at home since February 2017, but Ulster should be an altogether tougher proposition than was the case with an outclassed Cheetahs and an under-strength Ospreys.
“Ulster have showed a lot of resilience in the games that they’ve played,” said Flannery. “Look at how they’ve come back in the last quarter of matches. They look fit. I know Dan McFarlamnd, and he’s a really good coach. He hasn‘t had a huge amount of time there, but I know that Simon Easterby was there prior to him and they’ll be well drilled.
“I think for us it’s a massive game because we haven’t been good enough so far this season, and at home we’ve got to try and put up a good performance against them.”
McFarland makes nine changes to the starting XV from the second of their two-match excursion to South Africa. Influential scrum-half John Cooney returns from a scalp laceration that kept him out of the game against the Cheetahs, while Craig Gilroy has been passed fit after an abdominal muscle problem ruled him out of that game.
However, Will Addison (back spasm) Marcell Coetzee (shoulder), Wiehahn Herbst (groin), Rob Herring (toe), Sean Reidy (hamstring) and Henry Speight (knee) have all been sidelined, and so Iain Henderson is back in the second row while Peter Nelson, Darren Cave, Angus Curtis, Adam McBurney, Ross Kane, Nick Timoney, Jean Deysel and Andrew Warwick all return, with the latter making his 100th appearance for Ulster.
The 22-year-old McBurney makes his first start of the season at hooker, as will the 20-year-old Curtis at inside centre, alongside the bang in form Darren Cave. The Academy and Banbridge duo of 20-year-olds Michael Lowry and James Hume could make their Pro14 debuts off the bench.
It will be interesting to see if Ulster show any after-effects from their trip to South Africa, akin to Munster last season when failing to emerge from the blocks against Racing in a Euro semi-final when there seemed to be nothing in their legs.
Asked how tough it might be for Ulster, Flannery said: “I can only go off my experience last year. It’s taxing. It’s taxing to travel out there and come back, even just moving bases over there can be tough.
“We went over there and got two wins, and came back then for the Racing game, and it also has the benefit of the squad being together for two weeks. That can make you tighter, and I think Ulster will probably have fed off those couple of weeks being over there, and Dan McFarland is probably delighted to get his teeth into the players and have them just for himself for the last two weeks. I don’t think they’re going to be any weaker coming back from it.”
Allowing for their famous Heineken Cup quarter-final win here in 2012, and one handsome win under Matt Williams, Ulster’s only other victory at Thomond Park was in May 2014, whilst they have not been victorious away from home against an Irish province since a visit to Connacht in December 2015.
Not only does home advantage tend to count here more than most, but with the wounds from last week so fresh it’s highly unlikely that Munster will miss as many tackles as they did last week, or that their midfield will be as porous. If it is the evergreen Cave will prise them open.
Furthermore, the Munster pack looks equipped to apply pressure at scrum and maul time, Mathewson’s experience ought to help and the home side look to have more oomph off the bench.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls; Joey Carbery, Alby Mathewson; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Tadhg Beirne, Billy Holland; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, CJ Stander.
Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, James Cronin, Ciaran Parker, Jean Kleyn, Arno Botha, Duncan Williams, Ian Keatley, Sammy Arnold.
ULSTER: Peter Nelson; Craig Gilroy, Darren Cave, Angus Curtis, Angus Kernohan; Billy Burns, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Adam McBurney, Ross Kane; Alan O’Connor (Capt), Iain Henderson; Matthew Rea, Nick Timoney, Jean Deysel.
Replacements: John Andrew, Eric O’Sullivan, Tom O’Toole, Kieran Treadwell, Clive Ross, Dave Shanahan, Michael Lowry, James Hume.
Referee: Dan Jones (WRU).
Overall Pro14 head-to-head record: Played 33, Munster won 17, Ulster won 14 with two games drawn.
Last season: Ulster 24 Munster 17. Munster 24 Ulster 24.
Betting (Paddy Power): 1/25, 45/1 Draw, 10/1. Handicap odds (Ulster +20pts) 10/11 Munster, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Ulster.
Forecast: Munster to win.