LOOKING AT THE teams that were announced today, I must say it is all good news. Peter O’Mahony’s inclusion is massive for Munster. If he had been ruled out, I may have been worried but he is fit to start and that will be a massive boost for his team. Leinster are missing the unfortunate Luke Fitzgerald again but are otherwise strong. Bringing Jimmy Gopperth in for Ian Madigan doesn’t weaken them one bit.
For Ulster, it is all about Ruan Pienaar. Saracens will know what they have to do at Ravenhill tomorrow but the fact that Pienaar is fit and starting takes the game out of their hands. That tie is definitely in Ulster’s hands now.
Pienaar’s base level is superb and he took that up another few notches against Leicester at Welford Road. His kicking game is not affected by pressure and his game management is imperious. His influence is total and Sarries will be looking to disrupt what he does as much as possible.
The Ulster bench is a thing of beauty. You have lads in reserve like Robbie Diack, Craig Gilroy and Stephen Ferris. It is fantastic to see the big flanker back. The performances of Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien, for Ireland, in recent years, have meant we have not missed him too much but it is great to have Ferris back. Let us not forget that the man is a world-class wrecking ball.
Ferris fits in well with the Ulster team mentality. There are no super, super stars but a squad that are very committed and who will bust a gut for each other. Saracens coach Mark McCall knows that Ulster scene well and he will have his lads primed. They did a number on Ulster at Twickenham last season at the same stage. I am still in touch with a few guys at the club and I know how seriously they are taking this match.
Added to the return of their star scrum-half and the strong bench is the fact that Ulster played terribly last week. They got a hell of a roasting from Mark Anscombe for that slip-up against Cardiff and this quarter final is perfectly teed up for the backlash. It will be bloody hard, against a team that are rightly on top of the Premiership, but it is time to show people why Ulster are undefeated; why they are the number one seeds.
To break down O’Mahony’s game to its simplest, black and white, form, Munster have won the most amount of their rucks and have stolen the most opposition ball in the Heineken Cup this season. That, in a huge way, is down to their captain and his unbelievable work-rate. Munster will be keen to starve Toulouse of ball in their quarter final and there is no better man for that than O’Mahony.
If you are a neutral, these two sides are the kingpins of European rugby. Neither may be as good as they were in their heyday but we are still in store for a right battle at Thomond Park. Much like Ulster with Pienaar, I am optimistic that Munster will get the job down now that their back-row talisman is lining out.
@shanebyrneoffic played hooker for Leinster and Saracens, won 45 Test caps for Ireland between 2001 and 2005 and 4 Test appearances with The British & Irish Lions.