Venue: Thomond Park
Referee: Romain Poite
After dropping into third place in the RaboDirect Pro12 following defeat to Leinster last weekend, the top seeds from the Heineken Cup pool stages are at home once more against Irish opposition, though this time it’s the men from Belfast in Brian McLaughlin’s Ulster. Having Paul O’Connell back in the lineout is an enormous boost to ensure Munster are able to secure their own ball, but the way their scrum was torn apart by Northampton still lingers on the mind. The return of Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and David Wallace from injury has been timed to perfection.
With an aura of mystery surrounding the fitness of talisman Stephen Ferris, Ulster know how much of a psychological blow it would be to lose such a high quality performer ahead of this huge game. One player as, if not more important to Ulster’s cause though is Ruan Pienaar, because although he is his side’s key distributor more importantly he is a dead-eye kicker who rarely misses shots at goal. The Ulster front row of Tom Court and John Afoa know that if they can get on top at the scrum, their side’s chances dramatically improve.
What to Expect:
Ulster to try and boss Munster in the scrum, which having taken the scalp of Leicester’s front row already this season means their confidence will be on a high. Johann Muller will do his upmost to disrupt O’Connell at the lineout, but it’s in the back row where the impressive Peter O’Mahony will tackle Chris Henry in a battle of improving Irish backrowers.
All Eyes On: Conor Murray & Chris Gilroy
Much maligned for his slow distribution during the Six Nations, Conor Murray returns from injury for Munster this weekend. Without doubt a work in progress at 22, Murray’s development is crucial to both national and club aspirations with Peter Stringer not getting any younger and Tomás O’Leary departing at the end of the season.
Meanwhile for Ulster the image of Craig Gilroy’s bonus point try against Leicester will perhaps prove the defining picture of their campaign this year if they fail to progress on Sunday. On the back of a series of outstanding performances in this year’s tournament, Gilroy was touted for national selection before the Six Nations, and with Tommy Bowe now ruled out for possibly up to four months he could find himself on the summer tour to New Zealand.
Head to Head: Wian du Preez & John Afoa
To focus so much on one side of the scrum perhaps seems ignorant of the wider game, but here is Ulster’s key area to attack. Du Preez is no slouch at loosehead but by splashing out the euros on John Afoa, Ulster knew they were bringing in one of the best tightheads in the world, and it’s showed this season. If Ulster get Munster creaking here and give Ruan Pienaar some kickable penalties, their chances will double.
Home advantage and Heineken Cup pedigree puts Munster in the driving seat for Sunday’s clash, but Ulster have a real chance at Thomond Park to make some history, whether Stephen Ferris plays or not. That said, head rules over heart. Munster by 5.
by Ben Coles