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Opinion: Reds must turn tide to overcome underrated Ulster

Thomond Park is the only clear advantage for Munster ahead of Saturday’s inter-island Heineken Cup showdown.

Image: ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

LACKLUSTRE AND WELL off the pace.

These are not generally words to be associated with Munster in Thomond Park in any level of competition.

In a Heineken Cup week, with Leinster peacocking on the doorstep, it was all the more shocking.

The sight of a curly-haired Kiwi tearing up the right wing and breathing life into a dying game only intensified the longing within the brave and faithful hearts of for the magic Doug Howlett once provided. Only one side came close to scoring tries.

By the end, Anthoney Foley had little option but to take solace that the gap was only nine points. Once an imposing old fortress, Thomond Park’s refurbishment has heralded an era where Munster are limited.

Howlett is but one of a multitude of long-term injuries. It was the absence of first choice locks, Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan, which ensured the Leinster pack slowly steam-rolled their way to the win.

Even the Munster Pravda could not wrangle a positive, dishearteningly saying it was ‘no great surprise’ that the visitors won comfortably from a scoreline of 9-9 with 25 minutes on the clock.

“It was certainly nowhere near the performance we expected of ourselves.” head coach Tony McGahan told the province’s website, “It’s a very disappointed bunch of players down there in the dressing room right now. And very hard to explain that performance.”

While it’s become a common belief that Ulster need Stephen Ferris to win this game, he is the only doubt for Brian McLaughlin. His fellow outgoing coach not only has the powerhouse second rows, but also David Wallace and Conor Murray to nurse back to fitness.

Along with the captain, Murray’s loss is the harshest felt. While his form for Ireland was shaky, the never-ending slump of Tomas O’Leary is suffocating the southern province. A half-fit Murray should be McGahan’s preference for the Heineken Cup quarter-final.

The first glance at an Ulster team sheet will always stray to the number nine. Behind a pack enjoying no more than parity, Ruan Pienaar is one of those supremely talented scrum halves, able to completely dictate a game or smash it wide open with the flick of a wrist.

Regardless of who partners Ronan O’Gara at half back, Ulster will have the stronger number nine. Look at match-ups elsewhere in the field and they won’t be one bit discouraged.

Wian Du Preez probably shades Tom Court, BJ Botha and John Afoa will be closely matched. Johann Muller and Dan Tuohy will give any combination of Munster locks a run for their money and if Stephen Ferris is fit, it is difficult to see where the red back rows can win a collision.

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Rare commodity

Behind the scrum Pienaar is, of course, the man who brings it all together. Not even David Humphreys would pick his brother Ian ahead of Ronan O’Gara, but it’s worth remembering that little Hump, has already enjoyed that rarest commodities: a Heineken Cup victory at Thomond Park with Leicester Tigers.

It was a home win over the Tigers which signaled the northern provinces’s serious intent this season. A week later they went to Clermont and got exactly what they needed in the most intimidating atmosphere Europe can currently offer.

That tag used to belong to Munster. Theirs is a proud history, built upon winning against all odds. Another Heineken Cup semi-final is by no means impossible, but they will need ratchet up the quality and intensity of every facet of their game.

For hunger to be lacking when playing Leinster at home as underdogs on Saturday was alarming. We expect those bells to be false, for Munster to come out swinging, and play the perfect knock-out game as only they can.

However, this theory is all based on past glories, giving Munster the benefit of serious doubt.

If alarms continue to blare, McGahan could be just one of many heading for the exit door.

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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