Iain Henderson reflects on Ulster's loss. Laszlo Geczo/INPHO
On the Line

Huge game for both teams - but Munster have a safety net and Ulster don't

Munster host Ulster tonight in the Rainbow Cup.

IT WAS THE most sobering weekend Ireland has known since Leo Varadkar announced last March that he was going to close the pubs. Hearing the off licenses were staying open hardly improved the national mood.

That’s the kind of scenario Ireland’s provinces are in now. The party they want to attend has a limited number of invites; so instead of walking along Europe’s red carpet, they’re here, playing in the Rainbow Cup, rugby’s equivalent of another night in, watching Netflix, with a remote control in one hand, glass of wine in the other.

If the government had been a lot smarter last summer – introducing quarantine measures for visitors then rather than when case numbers had rocketed – life now would a whole lot better; similarly had Ulster, Leinster and before them, Munster, made better choices in Europe, then they too would have a sunnier outlook in the weeks ahead.

Instead we’re here, hyping ourselves up for another weekend of interpro matches, the ninth time Ulster and Munster have faced one of their Irish rivals since August.

It isn’t a meaningless exercise but if Ulster lose tonight (kick-off 8.15pm, eir Sport) then their remaining four games of the season will be.

That’s what is at stake here: the credentials of both teams, but mainly Ulster. After finally beating Leinster a fortnight ago, Munster have constructed a safety net for themselves. In all likelihood, they can afford a defeat and still make it to the Rainbow Cup final. As for Ulster, one more slip on the tightrope and they will suffer a heavy landing.

They’ve no one to blame for this, bar themselves. Aside from the redrawing of the season’s calendar, where the regular Pro14 championship was rushed to a conclusion to facilitate this Rainbow Cup tournament, you can’t look at Ulster’s plight with that much sympathy.

tempers-flare-between-the-two-sides-during-the-game Tempers flare during Ulster's clash with Tigers. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

On the face of it, it has been a good campaign. Their regular season Pro14 record of 14 wins, two defeats, merited a play-off place which was wrongly denied them.

If that was frustrating, what has happened on the field has been worse. Six times Ulster have lost this season, twice to Leinster in the Pro14, once to Connacht in the Rainbow Cup, to Toulouse and Gloucester in the Champions Cup, to Leicester in last weekend’s Challenge Cup semi-final. In all six games they had the lead and threw it away.

There has to be a psychological element to that recurring trend.

Time after time, indiscipline has cost them. If not in the form of cards – they picked up yellows against Gloucester and then home and away against Leinster – then it has been something else.

Last weekend in Leicester, they had control, a 17-6 half-time lead. Three times in the second-half, unforced errors – a dropped catch by Robert Baloucoune who coughed up a penalty as he fought to reclaim the ball; a needless ruck infringement by Iain Henderson; a kick out on the full by Alby Mathewson; led to 17 points for Leicester. Ulster lost by nine.

iain-henderson A mistake from Henderson cost points. Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

It brings you back to what head coach, Dan McFarland, said in the build-up to last weekend’s game, pointing out how the 15-year gap to Ulster’s previous trophy was not reflective of this current generation. Don’t pin the sins of the predecessors on us, was the gist of McFarland’s message.

He was dead-right, too. In the last decade, Ulster have lost three finals, six semi-finals and five European quarter-finals – but players come and go and very few of the current squad were around in the 2011-16 period when nine of those defeats occurred.

Since McFarland came in the team has been rebuilt and the graph has headed upwards. They’re certainly better than what they were prior to his arrival – but they are still losing the games at the business end of campaigns, the 2020 Pro14 final; last week’s Challenge Cup semi-final, the 2019 and 2020 Champions Cup quarter-finals, the 2019 Pro14 semi.

Tonight isn’t knockout rugby in name but it may as well be as far as Ulster are concerned. Lose and what have they left to play for?

“We can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves,” said Jared Payne, McFarland’s assistant.

He’s right. They can’t because Munster aren’t going to be charitable.

keynan-knox Munster aren't likely to be charitable tonight. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

They too have plenty to prove. Beating Leinster was a good way to start that process but unless they follow that up with another win here, indeed unless they go on to win this tournament, then they will continue to be labelled with the nearly men tag.

To be fair to Johann van Graan’s team, they fully deserved their win over Leinster last time out, dominating the breakdown, destroying Leinster’s line-out. Their own maul worked well while some individual performances – particularly those from Damian De Allende, Tadhg Beirne, CJ Stander, Peter O’Mahony, Jean Kleyn and Conor Murray – were top-notch. 

All are available again tonight (O’Mahony, Murray, Beirne start; De Allende, Stander, and Kleyn are on the bench) whereas Ulster are missing John Cooney, Baloucoune (concussion), Jack McGrath (hip), Luke Marshall (knee), Cormac Izuchukwu (knee), Stewart Moore (hip) and David O’Connor (shoulder).

On the plus side, Sam Carter is back. When the Australian second-row was signed by Ulster nearly two years ago, an accompanying press release pointed to his credentials, the 16 caps he won for the Wallabies, the fact he was just the 12th player to make 100 appearances for the Brumbies.

In short he was everything Ulster needed. But he has played just 1061 minutes of rugby in his two seasons in Belfast while Marcell Coetzee managed just 57 games in his five years there.

At least Ulster have Carter as a bench option tonight. More than anything, though, they need to recreate the spirit they showed against Edinburgh last September in the Pro14 semi. Like then, their backs are against the wall now. If they’re not at their best, they will lose this.

Munster Rugby v Ulster Rugby

At Thomond Park, Limerick, 8.15pm.

Munster: Mike Haley; Andrew Conway, Dan Goggin, Rory Scannell, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell, John Ryan; Fineen Wycherley, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony (CAPT), Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes. 

Replacements: Kevin O’Byrne, Jeremy Loughman, Roman Salanoa, Jean Kleyn, CJ Stander, Nick McCarthy, Ben Healy, Damian de Allende.

Ulster: Jacob Stockdale, Rob Lyttle, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Michael Lowry, Alby Mathewson; Andrew Warwick, John Andrew, Tom O’Toole, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (CAPT), Jordi Murphy, Marcus Rea, David McCann.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Callum Reid, Marty Moore, Sam Carter, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Angus Curtis, James Hume.

Referee: Craig Evans (WRU)

The42 Rugby Weekly / SoundCloud



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