Pack power holds key to Ulster hopes
AS we begin a new decade, and for those of us of a certain vintage, it is timely to recall the great Ulster team of the 1980s, the side coached by Jimmy Davidson that swept all before them -- including the 1984 Grand Slam-winning Australians.
The players coming off Ulster's production line at that time were of the highest quality. Up front, there was Jimmy McCoy at prop, giant hooker Stevie Smith, Willie Anderson in the second-row and a succession of top-class back-rows including the likes of Phil Matthews, Nigel Carr, Don Whittle and Davy Morrow.
They had a tidy pair of half-backs in Rab Brady and Ian Brown, the brawn of Davy Irwin in the midfield, the finishing power of Trevor Ringland and Keith Crossan on the wings and the solidity of Philip Rainey at full-back.
The current crop of Ulstermen have a way to go to reach the same levels of consistency as their predecessors, but, under the all-Ulster coaching team of Brian McLaughlin, Jeremy Davidson and Neil Doak -- with Ulster legend David Humphreys in an overseer's capacity -- the northerners are starting to build systems and partnerships that have them headed in the right direction.
Ian Humphreys and Isaac Boss have forged an excellent relationship at half-back, Tom Court and the peerless BJ Botha have the match of any scrum in Europe and, like their 1980s counterparts, there are a host of top-class back-rows to select from -- spearheaded by Stephen Ferris.
If that 1980s side were good on their trips to Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway, they were untouchable at home and, as Stade Francais would readily testify, Ulster are well on their way to returning Ravenhill to its daunting citadel status.
This evening's visit of league champions Munster will be a good test of those ambitions. Although their Ireland frontliners are absent, the visitors are high in confidence after a superb December and, with considerable strength-in-depth, are still able to bring a powerful side to Belfast.
In midfield, Jean De Villiers and Lifiemi Mafi get another opportunity to develop the partnership that failed to ignite over the first section of the season.
Being dropped for the back-to-back Heineken Cup meetings with Perpignan appears to have brought the best out of De Villiers. The South African produced a stunning try-scoring cameo off the bench in the Stade Aime Giral, before his powerful performance against Connacht last weekend, which included another tackle-swatting burst to the try-line to secure Munster's bonus point.
Denis Hurley has been in excellent form this season on the wing, but switches to full-back for this evening's encounter, with Ian Dowling filling the left-wing slot where he helped Munster capture two Heineken Cup titles. Doug Howlett is in his customary No 14 jersey, while first-choice 15 Paul Warwick gets the opportunity to show his undoubted quality at out-half in Ronan O'Gara's absence. The Australian has arguably been Munster's best player this season, his consistency a rallying point when the side was struggling for cohesion.
Up front, Wian Du Preez comes in for the injured Julien Brugnaut at loose-head, while James Coughlan starts at No 8 ahead of Nick Williams, who injured his knee in training.
Tom Gleeson put in a lively display against Connacht, but drops to the bench, where he is surrounded by an array of Academy talent, to accommodate New Zealander Mafi.
Duncan Williams's career has been road-blocked by injury difficulties, but the scrum-half is a player of considerable all-round ability and with him, O'Leary and Peter Stringer, the league champions look extremely well catered for in this position.
While Munster are without their international contingent, Ulster's Irish squad players return to the side after missing last weekend's defeat to Leinster.
Court starts at loose-head prop, Ferris is on the blindside flank, Andrew Trimble comes onto the wing for Timoci Nagusa and Paddy Wallace starts at inside centre ahead of Darren Cave. Ulster's impressive Academy system in Jordanstown is serving coach Brian McLaughlin well this season and his selection includes current Academy member Jamie Smith at full-back and recent graduates Ian Whitten alongside Wallace in midfield, Willie Falloon at openside flanker and Chris Henry, who captains the side from No 8.
If Munster have depth in their squad then so too do Ulster, as emphasised by the presence of the likes of Andy Kyriacou, Ryan Caldwell, Niall O'Connor and Nagusa on the bench.
Even with the improvements under McLaughlin and his all-Ulster coaching team this season, the issue of inconsistent away form has not been overcome and the northerners are an entirely different proposition in Ravenhill to when they are on their travels.
They have managed just one away league victory this season (against Connacht) and for a team with genuine designs on a top-four finish in the competition, Ulster need victory this evening to lift them towards the business end of the table.
Munster traditionally struggle in Belfast and McGahan's men have just the one victory from their last six visits to Irish opposition -- the 18-0 win over Leinster at the RDS in September 2008.
It suggests an ideal opportunity for Ulster to kick off the new year on a positive note and there is a strong sense of determination and resolve emanating from McLaughlin's men this week as they seek to give their Ravenhill supporters something to shout about.
"It is Munster at home in Ravenhill, it is huge," said hooker Nigel Brady. "We don't need any motivation for this one."
Munster's motivation is to continue their current good run that has them where they want to be in Europe and in the league.
They are also looking to do the double on Ulster with the memory of their two defeats to their northern rivals fresh in their minds.
"We lost to them twice last season so we know the job that faces us, especially up there at Ravenhill," said team manager Shaun Payne.
"We haven't had a whole heap of success up there and this is always a massive game."
Even with Munster's marquee names missing, there is enough talent on show to make this a compelling encounter. Ulster will look to put the squeeze on at scrum-time through Court and Botha, while there should be a good contest at the breakdown between Falloon and Niall Ronan.
Similarly, the battle of the out-halves between Warwick and Ian Humphreys will have a big say in the outcome and if Mafi and De Villiers get it together in midfield, the visitors have the capacity to punch holes in the Ulster defensive line.
Both full-backs will have their high-fielding skills tested, while the Dowling-Trimble, Howlett-Danielli match-ups out wide should make for intriguing viewing.
Even with a weakened selection, Munster have the confidence and quality to put it up to their hosts, but Ulster look to have the more settled combinations, a stronger scrum and more potent bench.
A new year, an old rivalry and much to savour as Ulster continue their bid to recapture the glories of the past, victory over the league champions this evening would represent a significant step forward in that process.
ULSTER - J Smith; A Trimble, I Whitten, P Wallace, S Danielli; I Humphreys, I Boss; T Court, N Brady, BJ Botha; E O'Donoghue, D Tuohy; S Ferris, W Faloon, C Henry (capt). Reps: A Kyriacou, D Fitzpatrick, R Caldwell, T Anderson, C Willis, N O'Connor, T Nagusa.
MUNSTER - D Hurley; D Howlett, L Mafi, J De Villiers, I Dowling; P Warwick, P Stringer; W Du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D Ryan, M O'Driscoll (capt); B Holland, N Ronan, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, S Archer, P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, D Williams, S Deasy, T Gleeson.
REF -- A Lewis (Ireland).
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