Sunday 23 October 2016

Massive Munster challenge comes at perfect time

This is going to be special - a packed Aviva Stadium, a long-standing rivalry and there is so much at stake

Mike Ross

Published 01/04/2016 | 02:30

Mike Ross is primed for yet another showdown against old rivals Munster (SPORTSFILE)
Mike Ross is primed for yet another showdown against old rivals Munster (SPORTSFILE)
Mike Ross is primed for yet another showdown against old rivals Munster (SPORTSFILE)

It's been a while since I've been in these pages. My last entry was more than six weeks ago and a lot has happened in the meantime. I managed to get back fit for the last three rounds of the Six Nations and thankfully, I was selected for those three fixtures.

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The first game back against England was a bit of a shock to the system, in terms of match fitness, and the result was disappointing. Happily, the last two games against Italy and a resurgent Scotland went into the history books as wins, which brought us to a third-place finish.

It's not where we wanted to be but I believe the experience will stand to us in the future. We had five new caps in Josh van der Flier, Stuart McCloskey, Ultan Dillane, CJ Stander and Finlay Bealham, and they acquitted themselves well.

It will only add to the strength in depth and with the likes of Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien to return from injury, we will have a good selection headache for the tour to South Africa. I've never been there, and hopefully I'll get the opportunity to go, but three months is a long time in sport and a lot can happen. For now, our sole focus is on the Guinness Pro12 and our only chance of winning silverware.

It's a little bit strange playing inter-provincials straight after the Six Nations. One week, you're hugging guys after a win, and the next you're knocking lumps out of each other because you happen to play for different provinces.

Once the whistle goes, any friendships tend to go out the window, and that was exactly what happened in Connacht last weekend. Conditions weren't fantastic, which is often the case in Galway with a gusting wind mixed in with the occasional hail shower. This made handling and kicking difficult and led to a lot of route-one stuff as both teams tried to hold on to the ball.

We were seven points down at half-time, but with the strong wind at our backs we felt that we had a good chance of overhauling that lead. We got to within a point, but were just unable to snatch the win, being held up over the line and then turning the ball over.

It was very frustrating but we did come away with the losing bonus point which keeps us two ahead of Scarlets. At this point in the season every point counts and it was important that we came away with something.

We've got four fixtures left - Munster, Edinburgh and Treviso at home and Ulster away. That home advantage has to count for something but isn't worth much if we don't give the supporters something to get behind.

Throw into the mix the fact that all four teams are fighting for something. Treviso are fighting to become the Italian representatives in the Champions Cup. Edinburgh are only four points off Europe as well. Then you have Munster and Ulster, who are still in the hunt for playoff positions. As for us, we need every point we can get to make sure of a home semi-final.

The first leg of the final four games finds us at home to Munster. It's always an interesting one for me as I'm originally from Cork and would have grown up going to Munster games. Luckily, my family are very supportive and there are no divided loyalties. I've since played in a few of these fixtures and there's always an extra edge to them. There's a long and storied rivalry there, with both teams having their ups and downs. The last time we played them at the Aviva they beat us, and beat us well. That's one experience we've no wish to repeat.

They've a lot of talent in their squad with a tough pack up front, containing players like Donnacha Ryan, David Kilcoyne and CJ Stander, who played superbly for Ireland during the Six Nations. Out wide, Francis Saili and Simon Zebo pose a big threat and you have to watch Conor Murray like a hawk around the breakdown.

These matches are always memorable, playing in front of 40,000-plus fans in the Aviva, but we'll only be concerned with getting the four points to keep the pressure on Connacht at the head of the table and get ourselves closer to that home semi-final.

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