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Munster up against it as Ulster keep ranks bolstered

Form and personnel make Ulster hot favourites to avenge the 64-7 defeat suffered in Thomond Park early this season.

IT’S BEEN A week of scant consolations for Munster.

Mike Haley dejected Mike Haley one of just two players to start again for Munster six days on from Europe. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Defeat in Castres left the most bitter of aftertastes. Adequate suspensions would hardly have made up for the one-point loss, but they might at least have given confidence that stray fingers won’t creep near the eye area of prone players any time soon. Judicial agreement that two red cards ought to have gone Castres’ way merely deepens the frustration.

Most of the players carrying that frustration won’t get the chance to vent against Ulster in the first of six Christmas inter-provincial matches at Kingspan Stadium this evening [kick-off 19.35, eir Sport].

We have had to get used to the advent of mismatched teams at this point of the season as limits on players’ game-time convinces teams to maximise their chances of entertaining a home audience. After two grueling arm-wrestles with Castres, Munster will reload their primary weapons in time for the home meeting with Leinster. Pre-Christmas is all about happy returns.

Conor Oliver is among the stand-out names returning from injury in this team. The dynamic openside lucklessly scuppered the first half of his season with a toe injury suffered in the gym. In the row ahead of him, Jean Kleyn is back in business after his physicality was so badly missed against the French champions. Tommy O’Donnell’s awful fortune in fitness brought the worst fears in October when he was carted off in the win over Gloucester. But he too is back among the replacements to inject a real cavalry feel to this Munster squad.

Conor Oliver Openside Conor Oliver in training this week. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Darren Sweetnam has shaken off the back issue picked up early in Ireland’s win over the USA, Jaco Taute captains the side from inside centre and he will be glad of the match fitness deployed either side of him in the shape of JJ Hanrahan and Sam Arnold. Having began 2018 with an overly-pumped-up high tackle to earn a red card in Belfast, the former Ulster academy kid will hope to end the year of his first international cap on a high.

There is a lot to like about the team Munster have put on the road. But Ulster have the machine humming along very nicely and should have a battle-hardened edge about them in deep December.

Since the last round of inter-pros (a red card-tilted 15-22 home loss to Connacht) Ulster have won six of their eight games. Most importantly, they notched 10 points out of 10 from their back-to-back meetings with Scarlets.

Suddenly, the positivity dials point north again and confident glances dart around other European pools to measure up possible runner-up points tallies. It all feels a long way from the record 64-7 defeat suffered against this same opponent in Thomond Park in the autumn. That is the sting that feels most relevant when these two sides get set to go toe-to-toe.

Louis Ludik, Will Addison and John Cooney Ludik, Addison and Cooney on the attack against Scarlets. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Head coach Dan McFarland has been hit with the blow of Iain Henderson’s injury and Jacob Stockdale also misses out on this week’s side. They are the two biggest stars in the province, but all the supporting cast remain in place to give a real sense of momentum to the side.

The brilliant touches of Will Addison continue to bring a spark to his appearances in the Pro14, there is growing understanding in the partnership of Billy Burns and John Cooney and the pride of the province has been the scrummaging foundations laid by Marty Moore and Eric O’Sullivan.

McFarland’s men are nought from two in this season’s derby days, but their form in the two months since the last inter-pro darkened their door has changed their outlook entirely and only Leinster have more points on the board in Pro14 Conference B.

With trips to Galway and Dublin to come before a massive European clash with Racing, this is the game they must win to keep the sweet scent of progress around Ravenhill.

Ulster

15. Louis Ludik
14. Henry Speight
13. Will Addison
12. Stuart McCloskey
11. Robert Baloucoune
10. Billy Burns
9. John Cooney

1. Eric O’Sullivan
2. Rob Herring (captain)
3. Marty Moore
4. Ian Nagle
5. Kieran Treadwell
6. Sean Reidy
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Marcell Coetzee

Replacements:

16. Rory Best
17. Kyle McCall
18. Ross Kane
19. Clive Ross
20. Nick Timoney
21. Dave Shanahan
22. Johnny McPhillips
23. James Hume

Munster

15. Mike Haley
14. Darren Sweetnam
13. Sammy Arnold
12. Jaco Taute (Captain)
11. Alex Wootton
10. JJ Hanrahan
9. Alby Mathewson

1. Jeremy Loughman
2. Kevin O’Byrne
3. Stephen Archer
4. Jean Kleyn
5. Darren O’Shea
6. Fineen Wycherley
7. Conor Oliver
8. Arno Botha

Replacements:

16. Mike Sherry
17. Dave Kilcoyne
18. Ciaran Parker
19. Gavin Coombes
20. Tommy O’Donnell
21. Neil Cronin
22. Bill Johnston
23. Shane Daly

Murray Kinsella, Gavan Casey and Andy Dunne preview another big weekend of rugby action and dissect the week’s main talking points.


Source: Heineken Rugby Weekly on The42/SoundCloud

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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