World Cup spots on the line in derby shootout, warns Foley
Published 06/05/2015 | 02:30
Welcome back to Munster's season. Since Anthony Foley's team suffered the heavy defeat to Saracens that ended their European hopes, they have operated largely in the shadows as the focus lurched from the struggles of Leinster, the glories of Ireland, Connacht's pursuit of European glory and Ulster's re-emergence as a force.
Most of the talk around Munster has revolved around next season, new recruits and the future of Paul O'Connell.
All the while, the men in red have been steadily accumulating points in low-profile Guinness Pro12 fixtures, climbing the table and now are exactly where Foley would have wanted to be - in control of their own destiny.
On Saturday, they return to the centre of attention as they face Ulster at Kingspan Stadium in what looks like a straight shootout for a home semi-final, even if there may be a twist or turn to come on the final day.
With the Sky TV cameras headed for Belfast and Joe Schmidt likely to be keeping a keen eye on proceedings as a number of Ireland contenders go head to head, it is Munster's biggest game since their Allianz Park defeat and their coach is relishing a chance to show the wider world how much progress his team have made.
A look at a team-sheet that should include all of their front-liners, including a fit-again O'Connell, is giving him belief.
"You just look at the names we have got in our squad and the experience we have in and around our squad," he said.
"People learn from past losses and we are no different. We will go up there and we will try to impose ourselves on Ulster as best we can.
"I can guarantee you they won't allow that. They will come at us as physically as they can early on in the game.
"You saw that in the Leinster game, anything around the breakdown, coming through the breakdown, kicking ball, getting their feet in, flying over the top, sealing off, they will come at you physically at the breakdown. We have got to manage that.
"We are building momentum - we had a session out there and the two packs could start. We are back to a good state of health and hopefully that competition in training will lead to performances on the pitch on Saturday."
The Pro12 has sometimes been a hard sell for Munster, but they have learned about the merits of winning this competition the hard way this season.
With Champions Cup seeding determined by a team's league performance, Munster know that their European campaign essentially begins in the coming weeks and if they want to avoid a pool of sharks like the one they found themselves in this year, then securing a home semi-final is essential.
Leinster's fall-off has thieved the Pro12 of a dramatic run-in, but with the top four all facing each other this weekend there is a sense that this is moving day.
"There is battles everywhere - the top two, the four teams are secure in the semi-finals spots," Foley said.
"You look over the next couple of weeks we go to Ulster, Glasgow go to Ospreys, Connacht have Ospreys the following week and Ulster go to Glasgow and we have Dragons at home. It means it is a fortnight of rugby that really matters for every team.
"It is important that we stay focused, stay on task and make sure that we are properly prepared for Ulster in the environment we are going to face up there."
Foley and Ulster coach Neil Doak are former allies as part of Ireland's back-room team and get on well. Foley is impressed with what the former scrum-half has created at Ravenhill since Ulster's own European exit.
"They are going well aren't they? In their last couple of games they have shifted up a gear," he said.
"They have had the benefits of the weeks off like we had and it allows you prepare and be diligent around what you are doing. They came down here back in early November and they took us right to the wire so we expect a battle up there. I think we went up there last year and we put it up to them as well. So it should be a very interesting engagement.
"Derby matches are so big - they are like mini Irish trials, and fellas are trying to get one up on the opposition. This is no different. This is no different from when I played back in the day too. It's your opportunity to get in the shop window and there's no better place to do it than up in Ravenhill."
One Irish player who won't have the chance to impress is James Cronin, who misses out with a bruised knee, while Dave O'Callaghan's season is over thanks to the medial collateral ligament tear he suffered playing for the 'A' side against Ulster Ravens last Thursday.
The good news yesterday was that Mike Sherry returned to non-contact training after his injury-ravaged season, while Foley was impressed with Tyler Bleyendaal, who made his first appearance for the province in the 'A' game last week after coming back from a career-threatening neck injury and reported no ill-effects.
The coach didn't rule out the prospect of the New Zealander making an appearance in the Pro12 run-in, but he's unlikely to feature on Saturday with the stakes so high.