Pro14 preview: Munster v Ulster, Thomond Park, 5.35pm - TV: TG4, BBC, Sky Sports
At the start of the season Ulster had no idea judgement day would look like this; a dreadfully untidy campaign, a poisonous few months off-pitch and Brian O’Driscoll’s “basket case” comment ringing in their ears.
In the final weekend of the regular season, next week’s place in the Pro14 league play-offs are entirely out of Ulster’s hands and next year’s involvement in the Champions Cup may go down to a playoff with Ospreys.
In short, Ulster need to register a bonus-point win in Limerick and hope Edinburgh gain no points from their final game against rivals Glasgow in order to be involved next week. The sting is that Edinburgh have strong motive to win and qualify for the Pro14 final series for the first time ever and secure a return to the Champions Cup next season.
To that end, controlling what they can control, Jono Gibbes’s side arrive as strong as they can be. Craig Gilroy has served his suspension and is on the right wing with Jacob Stockdale on the other. Rory Best returns to captain the side from hooker and Iain Henderson is back in the second row. That’s all good news for Ulster.
To offset that positive thrum, scrumhalf and occasional outhalf John Cooney has not been able to recover from concussion, while fullback Charles Piutau will miss the match due to family reasons. Those two losses and that of backrow Jean Deysel, who has a knee injury, are significant blows to Ulster’s hopes.
Dublin-born Dave Shanahan starts at scrumhalf for the first time this season, with Johnny Mc Phillips continuing at 10. Playing bit parts in this less than joyous make or break weekend, retiring duo Paul Marshall and Tommy Bowe are on the bench.
Munster have rested many of their front-line players, which should give Ulster appetite for the challenge. No Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander, Ian Keatly or Keith Earls, all of them recharging for the playoffs after falling flat against Racing last weekend.
Munster motive is pride and an opportunity for players to put up their hands for the quarter-final play-off match. The opponent for that game in Thomond Park is not yet known.
But there is some heft with Mike Sherry and James Cronin both earning their 100th Munster caps, with Sherry captaining the side for the first time since February 2013.
Irish winger Darren Sweetnam and JJ Hanrahan provide some Munster zip and creative power with Sammy Arnold a powerhouse in the centre, where Ulster have the impressive bulk of last week’s man of the match Stuart McCloskey. Ulster last won away to Munster in 2014.
What has rightly caused some strident complaints in Ulster is the timing of the matches, which do not kick off simultaneously. It means teams with later kick-off times will know exactly what they need to do and in this case that suits Edinburgh.
In the past the final round of regular league games have all kicked off at the same time with Saturday’s matches staggered throughout the day. Ulster’s game kicks-off at 5.35pm while the game in Scotland does not start until 7.45pm. Edinburgh will know what they have to do against Glasgow to secure third place.
“I think anyone who’s ever been down there and played a Munster team down there at Thomond . . . you certainly do not go down there with a mind set of getting four tries against them easily,” said a realistic Gibbes this week.
The New Zealand coach is right even against a light Munster side. Judgement day comes but once each season. This is what it looks like.
Munster: S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, M Sherry (C), B Scott; G Grobler, D O'Shea; D O'Callaghan, C Oliver, R Copeland. Replacements: R Marshall, J Loughman, S Archer, J Kleyn, J O'Donoghue, J Hart, B Johnston, S Daly.
Ulster: L Ludik; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; C Black, R Best (captain), R Kane, A O'Connor, I Henderson, C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney. Replacements: R Herring, A Warwick, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, C Henry, P Marshall, A Curtis, T Bowe.
Referee: B Whitehouse (WRU).
Verdict: Ulster win.