URC: Ulster v Munster, Kingspan Stadium, Friday, 7.35 – Live on RTÉ 2, BBC NI, Premier Sports
On weeks like this you sometimes wonder if Irish rugby, be it teams or supporters alike, are almost too in thrall to the Champions Cup. And on weeks like this we perhaps find out if this is true or not, for this is something of an acid test.
Munster arrive in Belfast on the high of securing a 19th quarter-final in the Champions Cup, to be hosted by an Ulster side reeling from as painful a loss and sense of missed opportunity as they’ve suffered in Europe in recent times – and they’ve suffered a few – given the prize denied them by their 50-49 aggregate defeat by Toulouse was a home quarter-final against tonight’s opponents.
Yet it is the United Rugby Championship which arguably still offers Munster their best chance of a first trophy in 11 years this season and now, of course, it is Ulster’s only opportunity to do so after 15 campaigns without silverware. Furthermore, with the advent, and remorseless rise, of the South African franchises the URC has become more difficult to win and will continue to do so increasingly in years to come.
Viewed in that light, the outcome of this game is sure to have a significant bearing on how the remainder of their respective URC campaigns pan out. Ulster go into the third-last round leading the peloton behind Leinster in second place on 50 points, with Munster three points adrift in fourth and one of six clubs within seven points of Dan McFarland’s side.
In terms of securing a home quarter-final and possibly a home semi-final, this looks pretty much must-win, for each of them.
The strong team selections reflect the game's importance. McFarland moves Michael Lowry to outhalf and calls up Stewart Moore to fullback, while Matty Rea and Jordi Murphy come into the backrow in an otherwise unchanged starting XV.
In the absence of Simon Zebo, for personal reasons, as well as Niall Scannell and Peter O'Mahony due to unspecified knocks, Johann van Graan calls up Shane Daly, Diarmuid Barron and Alex Kendellen. He also prefers Craig Casey to start ahead of Conor Murray, rotates his props and brings in Thomas Ahern, with Fineen Wycherley – who has played more minutes than any other northern hemisphere player in the tournament this season – moving to a six-two bench featuring academy hooker Scott Buckley and the recalled Chris Cloete.
The key is how each side, and the home crowd, will react to the events of six days ago. A tad disconcertingly for the Ulster faithful, not alone did their side ship a heavy defeat in Glasgow six nights after losing a Euro epic against Leinster three seasons ago, but their delayed 2019-20 seasonal endgame after the resumption fell asunder with four defeats in five, losing heavily to Leinster in the Pro 14 final and to Toulouse two weeks later.
But, significantly, they have the comforts of home, and last week was their first defeat in 10 games at the Kingspan this season, while switching fan favourite Lowry to outhalf could galvanise home crowd and team alike, and the talented Moore looked a natural in his one start at fullback against Cardiff four weeks ago.
Furthermore, Munster have lost on their last four visits here dating back to October 2016 and while he may have struggled to rescale the heights of last week, Munster are liable to miss O’Mahony’s leadership and presence at both lineout and breakdown.
Most of all, Ulster are wounded and, with home advantage, are likely to have an angry yet positive reaction, while one hopes there are no high hits and hence Jaco Peyper has good reason to keep his red card in his pocket.
ULSTER: Stewart Moore; Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy; Mike Lowry, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore; Alan O'Connor, Iain Henderson (capt); Matty Rea, Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney.
Replacements: Brad Roberts, Eric O'Sullivan, Gareth Milasinovich, Sam Carter, Sean Reidy, Nathan Doak, Ian Madigan, Ben Moxham.
MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Thomas Ahern; Jack O'Donoghue (capt), John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen.
Replacements: Scott Buckley, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Jason Jenkins, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Murray, Ben Healy, Chris Cloete.
Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)
Forecast: Ulster to win.