Ruaidhri O'Connor: Desperation derby for Foley as Munster look to stop the rot with a rare win in Ravenhill
Published 02/01/2016 | 02:30
It might be a new year, the place might have a relatively new name, but some things don't change.
As Anthony Foley knows well, there are places you don't want to go to when form has deserted you and you need a win badly. Ravenhill is up there.
Munster last won a match on November 14, when they beat Treviso to sustain a solid start to the season. Five defeats later, they are in the midst of a dreadful run of results and another loss will likely see them drop into the bottom half of the Guinness Pro12.
Not only have they lost five in a row, the Reds have failed to get a losing bonus point in any of their last four outings and, for all their good approach play, have averaged 10 points a game while conceding 22.
Ulster have bounced back from a miserable November to win four on the trot and the outlook for 2016 is bright for Les Kiss' men, who have developed an attacking edge.
Having plundered Galway on St Stephen's Day, they have room to improve, and with Kyle McCall, Rory Best and Chris Henry back in harness have the scope to do so up front, where they will look to bully a Munster pack who have been less than formidable in recent weeks and have lost Donnacha Ryan to compound their issues.
The return to the starting line-up of Tommy O'Donnell will help, but there's a lot of pressure on him to deliver after a long spell on the sidelines.
With Joe Schmidt watching from the stands ahead of his first post-World Cup camp, there will be personal battles all over the pitch, and the clash of the opensides will be telling, while Stuart McCloskey will be on a mission to force his way into the centre equation.
Foley has restored Ian Keatley to the problem position of No 10 after taking him out of the firing line against Leinster. Two seasons ago, the out-half used a difficult night at this venue as a spur to revive his campaign and he needs a big outing this afternoon to silence the doubters and kick on.
Tyler Bleyendaal looked rusty last week and is on the bench today, while Rory Scannell was handed a development contract in midweek as a reminder that the promising youngster remains one for the future.
A year ago, Keatley played his way into a starting Six Nations jersey when Johnny Sexton was injured but his form has deserted him in recent times.
For better or worse, he remains the No 1 and Munster need him back to his best now if they are to win any of their key fixtures in January.
Defeat to Ulster would send them to Paris to face French champions Stade Francais after six successive defeats, and the Top 14 side visit Limerick a week later.
There is no let-up until the trip to Treviso, at which point they could be out of Europe.
For Ulster, this is a chance to build on all of their good recent work before back-to-back games against Oyonnax and a visit to Saracens.
Fourth in the table before the weekend's fixtures, they will be confident that they can take Munster on in the tight and have the class behind the scrum to cause all sorts of problems.
In contrast to Keatley, Paddy Jackson is enjoying himself again outside Ruan Pienaar, while McCloskey and Luke Marshall are becoming a formidable partnership and the highly rated Sam Arnold is waiting to make an impact off the bench.
Munster's backline, in contrast, looks blunted due to the absence of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. After a period in which their cutting edge has deserted them, losing their best finishers won't help.
The forecast is good, meaning there should be opportunities if either side can get an edge up front; Munster created plenty with clever starter plays and decent phase-play in recent times, but they've endeavoured to mess it all up in the end.
BJ Botha will strengthen their set-piece, but Ulster look like having the edge in the tight as well, while the absence of Conor Murray will be felt, with Tomas O'Leary facing a touch challenge opposite Pienaar.
All over the pitch it is the home team who appear to have the stronger hand. Backed by a full house at the Kingspan Stadium, in front of the Sky cameras and with the Ireland coaches watching closely, there is plenty of incentive to perform. It is hard to see Munster stopping the rot.
ULSTER - L Ludik; A Trimble, L Marshall, S McCloskey, R Scholes; P Jackson, R Pienaar; K McCall, R Best (capt), W Herbst; L Stevenson, F van der Merwe; R Diack, C Henry, N Williams. Reps: R Herring, C Black, R Lutton, A O'Connor, R Wilson, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S Arnold.
MUNSTER - A Conway; R O'Mahony, F Saili, R Scannell, L Gonzalez Amorosino; I Keatley, T O'Leary; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; D Foley, M Chisholm; J O'Donoghue, T O'Donnell, CJ Stander(capt). Reps: N Scannell, J Ryan, M Sagario, B Holland, R Copeland, D Williams, T Bleyendaal, D Hurley.
Ref - G Conway (IRFU)
Ulster v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports, 3.0