Ulster ready to answer destiny's call
Wins over Connacht and Leinster show Doak's men are primed to continue derby dominance
Published 09/05/2015 | 02:30
Parallel seasons collide at Kingspan Stadium this afternoon, with victory opening up a route to glory.
Anthony Foley and Neil Doak know each other well after their time together in Ireland camps and the indigenous, first-year head coaches have plenty in common this year after enduring European disappointment; now they stand four weeks from redemption and a trophy that would commit their campaign to the 'success' column.
These two teams have had remarkably similar seasons: their Champions Cup pools proved too difficult and, in Round Five, both experienced humiliating beatings that ended their interest.
They have rebuilt through the Guinness Pro12, using the breathing space afforded by the Six Nations and speedy run-off of the European knock-out rounds to accumulate enough points to secure a play-off place.
Now, with almost identical league records and two games to go, it's all about ensuring they'll be at home for the semi-final.
Ulster have the feel of destiny's team about them, a side who were forced to rebuild somewhat last summer but who have been on the rise for five seasons and need some silverware to go with it.
With the final scheduled for Belfast at the end of this month and their old foes Leinster out of the running, they'll never get a better shot.
Munster, meanwhile, have an impatient coterie of young players who grew up watching their idols win silverware and have yet to taste it themselves. They also know that this could well be Paul O'Connell's swansong.
The importance of a home semi-final is clear in a competition that has never seen an away win in the last four.
If Munster win, they'll almost certainly be at Thomond Park in two weeks' time, with Ulster their likely opponents.
The northern province would still need a result in Glasgow on the final day if they were to secure victory today, but a third successive interprovincial success would simply fuel the sense of momentum behind Doak's men.
Their forward pack has a mean look to it at the moment, with Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe doing huge damage in the engine room, Iain Henderson wreaking havoc in the open field and fit-again Chris Henry causing trouble on the deck.
Behind the scrum, Ruan Pienaar and Paddy Jackson are in fine fettle, their Ireland centres are combining well and their back-three - albeit robbed of the injured Craig Gilroy today - have been lethal.
They were ruthless against Connacht and beat Leinster up. Beating Munster might need a combination of the two.
Undoubtedly, Foley now has as strong a squad as he's had all season, with Donnacha Ryan and Paul O'Connell partnering up in the second-row and Keith Earls adding unpredictability behind the scrum.
The Ulster tyro has largely been used as a second-row sub by Joe Schmidt, but his recent form in the blindside shirt demands attention, and O'Mahony is likely to have taken note.
"He's an excellent player, a very smart player," Henderson said of his opposite number. "He has massive experience and works so well with Paul O'Connell - those two bounce off each other extremely well in terms of the way they play, their work ethic and their detail level and the intensity they both play at.
"That's who you want to be playing against, the best players. That's why the inter-pro series are such intense games because you are playing against the best players in the league."
The blindsides are just two of a host of international match-ups on show, with Chris Henry and Tommy O'Donnell also squaring off and Simon Zebo facing off against Tommy Bowe.
With so much on the line and the weather forecast bad, it promises to be fiery. Whatever about the sub-plots, Foley is focused on the occasion itself and the intimidating arena that awaits his charges.
"You have got to have a strong referee up there because it is a hostile environment and Nigel Owens is a strong referee so there won't be any excuses," he said.
"The crowd will get in there and will put us under pressure. They will build momentum against us from the terraces but if you go about your job in the right manner you can flip that around as well so it's important to understand that the game flows and it's important that when we are on top in the game that we capitalise.
"There could be a few trips up to Belfast if we don't get the job done this weekend."
If Munster are to avoid a return trip in a fortnight, they'll look to do damage at lineout and scrum and target Rory Best's throw.
As Foley said, taking every chance will be key, while limiting mistakes in difficult conditions is another item high on their agenda.
Yet, Ulster just look to have the edge across the field and, in Jackson and Henderson, they have the league's form players. It will be tight, but they should have enough.
Ulster - L Ludik; T Bowe, J Payne, D Cave, P Nelson; P Jackson, R Pienaar; C Black, R Best (capt), W Herbst; D Tuohy, F van der Merwe; I Henderson, C Henry, R Wilson. Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, B Ross, R Diack, C Ross, P Marshall, I Humphreys, S McCloskey.
Munster - F Jones; K Earls, A Smith, D Hurley, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, E Guinazu, S Archer; D Ryan, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: D Casey, J Ryan, BJ Botha, B Holland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, JJ Hanrahan, R O'Mahony.
Ref - N Owens (Wales)
Ulster v Munster,
Live, Sky Sports 1, 2.40
Interprovincial bragging rights on the line
There is plenty on the line at Kingspan Stadium this afternoon, not least the chance to top the unofficial interprovincial table in the final derby of the regular season.
There is no trophy awarded for finishing top of the Irish pile these days unfortunately, so bragging rights will have to do as it comes down to today's protagonists.
Munster have a three-point cushion over Ulster ahead of their visit north, having won four of their five interpros this season, slipping up on their New Years trip to the Sportsground.
Connacht's progress might not be enough to see them into the Champions Cup next season, but Pat Lam's men can claim to have been the third most effective team in the derbies as they squeezed in above Leinster in third thanks to their Galway wins over Leinster and Munster.
It is a mark of how poor Leinster's Pro12 season has been that their home wins over Connacht and Ulster are all they have to show from their derby campaign, with the home and away defeats to Munster stinging Matt O'Connor's men badly.
Ulster got off to a slow start with their away defeats in Limerick and Dublin and a narrow win over Connacht in Belfast, but their recent form has been outstanding and they hammered the Westerners in the return fixture and comfortably beat Leinster two weeks ago.
So, it comes down to today's meeting of north and south to see who will sit atop the interprovincial table at the end of 2014/15.