Ulster don't just hope to bounce back from last weekend's nightmare - they need to

Both Ulster and Munster need a victory this evening to keep alive their hopes of getting home advantage in the quarter-final and semi-final of the URC.

The Ulster team huddle after Toulouse.
The Ulster team huddle after Toulouse.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

IT IS ALL too easy to mock the URC, a sin we’ve never shied away from committing. But when you sit down to write about must-win games as early as April, well, you know the competition is on the right track.

Can the same thing be said about Ulster, though? That’s the question that needs answering this evening (7.35pm, live RTE/Premier Sports). Having conspired to lose a Champions Cup game they really should have won, irrespective of Toulouse’s standing in the sport, Dan McFarland’s team now have to replace self-pity with a renewed desire to get things right.

So often this season they have. Victories home and away against Leinster and Clermont provided evidence of a side who appeared to have learned how to seal the deal. Then came the last two weekends, a 13-point lead reduced to six in Toulouse; a six point lead reduced to a defeat in Belfast.  

There’s a cruel irony in the fact that it was their discipline that cost them – Tom O’Toole’s red card coming 60-odd minutes after Robert Baloucoune’s yellow – because throughout this season, they have conceded the fewest penalties in the URC.

It isn’t the only chart they top. Dan McFarland’s side have the best defence in the league; have made the most tackles; have won the most line-outs. That’s why they are here, second in the table, chasing a home quarter-final and semi-final.

Win tonight and they are a fairly safe bet to get those. Lose, and well, it isn’t just home advantage that you’d worry over. It’s just about everything with regards to their season.

“We have to rally round each other and make sure everyone is supporting each other and make sure we are physically and emotionally ready to go (against Munster),” said their captain, Iain Henderson after last week’s heartbreak against Toulouse. “It is difficult to throw yourself straight back into it but it will be a focus of ours.

iain-henderson-dejected-after-the-game Henderson reacts to last week's defeat. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“Those next two games are going to be instrumental in defining how we finish the season, so we have to make sure we can show ourselves, the staff, and everyone else that we are able to bounce back and put in a good performance on the back of an emotional loss.”

In contrast, Munster arrive in Belfast feeling good about themselves. That win over Exeter, not least the manner of it, was their best of the season. They are now guaranteed two quarter-finals but if they don’t get a victory this evening then their last eight URC date looks set to be away from home.

At times like this it’s worth pointing out the following stat: since semi-finals, and later quarter-finals, were introduced into the Pro12/14 calendar, all bar two have ended up in a home victory. No side wants to try and improve those statistics in South Africa next month.

That’s why both coaches have picked as strong a team as possible for this one, Billy Burns’ absence from the Ulster side compensated for by the intriguing relocation of Mike Lowry from full-back to out-half.

A star performer for his province this season – words that can be as easily attributed to Alan O’Connor, Nick Timoney and James Hume – Lowry is viewed as a viable long-term option by Ulster for the ten shirt, admired by McFarland for his organisational qualities as much as his skill.

He’ll do well to outshine Joey Carbery this evening, however, because the Munster playmaker was brilliant against Exeter, scorer of 21 points, filled with confidence, playing his best stuff since an away win in Gloucester over three years ago.

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There’s a settled look to the Munster attack now, something we’ve rarely been able to say across the last 12 months. Other factors also impress, not least the fact they have lost just three scrums – the lowest figure in the competition (along with Glasgow).

They land in Belfast this evening in a good place, emotionally. Ulster, by contrast, are clouded by the misery of what happened here last Saturday.

“It’ll be a big task on Friday, picking everyone up, but we’ll do it,” said McFarland. “We’ll be alright.”

Ulster: Stewart Moore, Rob Baloucoune, James Hume, Stuart McCloskey, Ethan McIlroy, Mike Lowry, John Cooney; Andrew Warwick, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (Capt.), Matty Rea, Jordi Murphy, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Brad Roberts, Eric O’Sullivan, Gareth Milasinovich, Sam Carter, Sean Reidy, Nathan Doak, Ian Madigan, Ben Moxham.

Munster: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Craig Casey; Jeremy Loughman, Diarmuid Barron, Stephen Archer; Jean Kleyn, Thomas Ahern; Jack O’Donoghue (C), John Hodnett, Alex Kendellen.

Replacements: Scott Buckley, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Jason Jenkins, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Murray, Ben Healy, Chris Cloete.

About the author:

Garry Doyle

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