URC: Munster v Ulster, Thomond Park, Saturday, 7.35pm – Live RTÉ 2 & Premier Sports 2
Anyone settling down to watch how Ulster’s visit to Thomond Park develops this evening will scan the team and agree it is a menacing line-up from coach Dan McFarland.
Despite the Munster jets being cooled by Connacht last week in Galway, any team that arrives in Limerick when Munster are smarting from defeat needs an elevated degree of armour plating.
In so far as is possible McFarland has done that as Ulster seeks their sixth win from their eight opening games in the United Rugby Championship (URC).
Munster are sitting on a neat five Thomond Park victories in a row and will have to improve on last week’s out of sorts, turkey and ham, Christmas pudding, Covid fatigue, call it what you will poor performance in the Sportsground to take that to six.
On the back of the lame outing questions arise on whether the reports of Johann van Graan and Stephen Larkham’s preference to depart at the end of the season to Bath and the Brumbies is having an underlying corrosive effect on motivation. Others have pointed to players soaking up over three weeks in quarantine in South Africa and Ireland.
McFarland might hope so and he has dropped in many of his match-winning names, including South African number eight Duane Vermuelen. However, the South African backrow will not be afforded an on-pitch welcome by his World Cup winning team-mate Damian De Allende, who suffered an abdominal injury in training and is not in the Munster squad.
Just outside James Hume in the Ulster centre Ben Moxham comes in for his first Ulster start. He is probably the only unfamiliar name in the visitor's starting line-up.
A product of the province’s player pathway, the Larne native’s speed, skills, and athleticism, which have already been showcased on an international stage for the Ireland under-20s and Ireland Sevens, has resulted in his academy contract being upgraded to a development contract for the rest of this season.
This is his first start and he lines up against outside centre Chris Farrell, back in the starting side after narrowly missing more than just a yellow card for a reckless tackle last week.
Van Graan has given the fans the kind of pizzazz they want in handing Simon Zebo his first outing in red since mid October among seven changes Zebo will start on the left wing with Seán French set to make his first appearance of the season on the right, while Jack Crowley is named at outhalf.
Peter O'Mahony will bring experience with his captaincy in the Munster backrow, where John Hodnett also comes in, just Gavin Coombes retaining his place to face Nick Timoney, Greg Jones and Vermuelen, with Alan O'Connor and Sam Carter in the Ulster secondrow.
“I only found out that we haven’t won there since 2014, it was brought up in a meeting,” said Carter this week. “I’ve played there twice and came off the bench last year where we didn’t put in our best performance.
“Any Irish team at home is tough and heading all the way to Limerick where they pride themselves on being physical is going to be a difficult ask.
“But we’ve been building nicely throughout the season. We hadn’t won in Leinster in a couple of years and we were able to knock off that one. That’s the momentum we want to build and put in a good performance on Saturday.”
Notwithstanding needing league points, a win is what both sides are desperately seeking with Champions Cup next weekend and some breezy attitudes to fill sails for that. There, both Munster and Ulster are two from two so far.
More edgy stuff like last weekend. Maybe. Either way there are too many good players on both sides to make the meeting anything less than tasty.
MUNSTER: M Haley; S French, C Farrell, R Scannell, S Zebo; J Crowley, C Casey; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, S Archer; T Ahern, F Wycherley; P O'Mahony (capt), J Hodnett, G Coombes.
Replacements: D Barron, J Wycherley, J Ryan, T Beirne, J O'Donoghue, N Cronin, B Healy, S Daly.
ULSTER: M Lowry; C Gilroy, B Moxham, J Hume, E McIlroy; B Burns, J Cooney; J McGrath, R Herring, T O'Toole; A O'Connor (capt), S Carter; G Jones, N Timoney, D Vermeulen.
Replacements: J Andrew, A Warwick, R Kane, K Treadwell, M Rea, N Doak, A Curtis, R Lyttle.
Referee: M Adamson (SRU).