Penney's evolving Reds can halt Ulster gallop
this evening's Thomond Park clash of Munster and Ulster offers two developing teams the opportunity to make a major statement as they seek to chart a way to trophy success.
Munster will be desperately keen to avenge last season's European defeat and re-establish Thomond as an impenetrable stronghold, while Ulster will be determined to maintain their magnificent run of 11 consecutive victories in the Pro12.
Ulster are the team of the moment in these parts. They are the only Irish side still in control of their pool in the Heineken Cup, have a nine-point lead over their nearest rivals in the Pro12 and have the best strike rate in the competition.
In their 11 games, they have scored a fantastic 33 tries and only Ospreys (eight) have conceded less than Ulster's 14 tries. It's an astonishing run of results and, justifiably, has them at the pinnacle of the table.
Munster, by contrast, have been a mixed bag this season. They are third in the table but have been less than convincing in their outings – in both competitions.
Offensively, they are still able to cross the line, as their 23 tries attest, but they simply do not have the punch that others have and there has been a noticeable regression in some matches this season.
Rob Penney and Simon Mannix have been upskilling the players with a view to implementing a more expansive game and their creditable efforts have yielded some precious dividends.
But there has also been a familiar look to how Munster approach certain games with the team reverting to a more traditional style of play in recent must-win games.
Their double-header against Saracens in the Heineken Cup was a case in point.
Munster went back to what the players call 'winning rugby'. They kept the ball tight and kept Saracens turning back on themselves, with Ronan O'Gara pushing them around the pitch while keeping the scoreboard ticking over.
And they were effective in those games, taking four points from the meeting at Thomond Park and earning what could be another crucial losing bonus point at Vicarage Road.
There is real merit in continuing the evolution under Penney and Mannix, but the reality is that a mixture of old and new is what will be most effective, especially given the weather conditions the majority of the season will be played in.
Munster, of course, need to evolve, but they also need to keep true to their traditions.
Earning the right to go wide is a cliche in rugby, but it is no less valid a concept for that. Forwards win games and Ulster have built their team around a dominant pack.
It is only when they find that balance between old and new that they will truly grow and flourish.
This evening's game is one that will be very informative for both sides as a number of younger players are given a chance to impress, not least in the Munster back-row where Tommy O'Donnell and Paddy Butler are deployed.
Both players are exciting prospects, but it was evident how much Munster missed James Coughlan's calm assurance at the base of the scrum when he was out injured and how much better they were on his return.
Today, they are coming up against a more experienced trio in Roger Wilson, Mike McComish and Robbie Diack. But, if they manage to dominate, Munster will be in a good position to claim a valuable scalp as they seek to build momentum ahead of their return to Heineken Cup duty.
Both sides have made a number of changes from their last outings, with the IRFU's Player Welfare Scheme dictating that only a handful of current Ireland internationals start the game.
Munster are better off in this regard as they have Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Peter O'Mahony and Donncha O'Callaghan all starting, with Ronan O'Gara on the bench.
Ulster only have Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall available to them and have made 11 changes in all from the team that defeated Leinster before Christmas.
Ulster's best start to a league season has alarm bells sounding down south and they have won all three inter-provincial derbies so far this season – although all three have been in their Ravenhill citadel.
But they are a side that will demand the utmost respect, despite looking a little lightweight given how many first-team players are absent.
"Ulster are on an unbelievable roll," said Munster hooker Damien Varley. "But they have been growing for some time now. It has just clicked for them this season. Their win over Leinster last weekend was very impressive."
Munster, though, need this win and that is reflected in the strength of their side, even allowing for those who are absent.
The quality of their bench, with O'Gara, Felix Jones and James Coughlan all included, is indicative of how determined Munster are to eke out a win.
Ulster have a fully Irish-qualified squad named for the game. Adam D'Arcy will make his first start of the season at full-back and will be joined in the back three by speedy youngsters Chris Cochrane and Gilroy.
Up front, Callum Black, Rob Herring and Adam Macklin make up an all-new front-row, with John Afoa given the weekend off and Tom Court named among the replacements. This will be a big test for Black in particular, as he will be faced by BJ Botha.
Ulster, as Court attests, have put a huge emphasis on their scrum this season and they have been rewarded for this hugely improved facet of their game, not least in the winning of a penalty try against Leinster last week.
"Our scrum has been a big weapon for us," said Court. "Thomond Park is an intimidating place and Munster will be targeting a home win, but if we stick to the basics and keep doing well in the set-piece we will be in a good position."
This is also a huge game for Munster's scrum, not least loosehead prop Wian du Preez who has found himself second-choice to Ireland's Dave Kilcoyne in recent months, while hooker Varley will need to produce a strong performance too if he is to unseat Mike Sherry in the coming weeks.
Ulster's overall youthful look – they have four academy players on the bench – makes an away win unlikely on this occasion, but they are the team of the moment and will certainly not be taking any steps back in what promises to be a gripping encounter.
Munster - D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), C Laulala, J Downey, S Zebo; I Keatley, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, BJ Botha; Donncha O'Callaghan, B Holland; P O'Mahony, T O'Donnell, P Butler. Reps: M Sherry, M Horan, S Archer, Dave O'Callaghan, J Coughlan, P Stringer, R O'Gara, F Jones.
Ulster – A D'Arcy; C Cochrane, M Allen, L Marshall, C Gilroy; N O'Connor, P Marshall; C Black, R Herring, A Macklin; L Stevenson, N McComb; R Diack, M McComish, R Wilson. Reps: N Annett, R Lutton, T Court, A O'Connor, A Birch, M Heaney, S Olding, R Andrew.
Munster v Ulster, Live, RTE 2, 5.30