Friday 25 May 2018

Munster selection offers Ulster a chance to keep play-off pressure on Edinburgh

Craig Gilroy is back in the Ulster team after serving his IRFU suspension. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Craig Gilroy is back in the Ulster team after serving his IRFU suspension. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Even with a ban on news journalists in place this week, Ulster's players still found themselves answering awkward questions ahead of the final regular-season game of a very irregular campaign.

When Brian O'Driscoll labels your club "a bit of a basket-case", people tend to take notice and for all that they protested when the legendary centre's opinions were put to them this week it is hard for anyone at Ulster to paint a more positive picture.

White smoke has yet to emerge on a coach, all the IRFU encouragement in the world can't convince Leinster's reserve out-halves to go north and they could yet be playing Challenge Cup rugby next season. And yet, from the rubble a run of form has emerged and, while unlikely, they could still leap-frog Edinburgh into the play-offs and the automatic Champions Cup qualification spots.

Ulster need a bonus-point win and need Glasgow Warriors to beat their fellow Scots away from home, denying them a losing bonus, to set up a return to Thomond Park in a week's time.

Otherwise, Ulster take on Ospreys at home for a place in next season's Champions Cup.

They have picked a team to go to Limerick and win and will be boosted by Johann van Graan's decision to rest 14 of the team that lost to Racing 92 last weekend ahead of their play-off game, likely to be against Edinburgh, next week.

"It's just good to be alive in the last game, to be honest," Ulster's outgoing coach Jono Gibbes said this week.

"We have that, we had no margin of error and we managed to fight and scratch our way through and get ourselves in a position to put pressure on Edinburgh.

Mindset

"Anyone who's ever been down there and played a Munster team down there at Thomond, you certainly do not go down there with a mindset of getting four tries against them easily at all.

"They're a formidable opponent, a proud team down there and whoever pulls on that red jersey down there… it's a big challenge for us.

"You know, we had to regroup a little after Saturday, get a bit of energy back and save it up because it will be ferocious for sure on Saturday."

Ulster welcome Craig Gilroy back after his IRFU suspension but lost Charles Piutau who doesn't make the trip due to family reasons.

John Cooney misses out due to concussion, meaning the inexperienced pairing of Dave Shanahan and Johnny McPhillips face off against the returning Duncan Williams and JJ Hanrahan.

After Ian Keatley's poor display last week in Bordeaux, Hanrahan has a chance to stake a claim for the starting spot next week.

His return has not gone to plan, but he showed glimpses last weekend of being able to control matters and another strong performance would at least put him in the frame for a play-off starting spot.

Gerbrandt Grobler will hope to do similar as he adds power to the Munster engine-room, while Robin Copeland is enjoying a strong finish to his time with the province ahead of his move to Connacht.

At the end of a difficult week, the Reds have little to play for but places and there is bound to be some issues with regard to cohesion given the level of change as only Sam Arnold is retained.

With Ireland pair Rory Best and Iain Henderson driving things up front, Ulster will fancy their chances of turning their old rivals over.

A good platform will make life easier for McPhillips, while he has the option of the carrying power of Stuart McCloskey or the more nuanced Luke Marshall outside him.

Ulster have plenty of threats if they can secure good ball and if they perform they can win the game, but it is unlikely to earn them a return visit in a week's time to face a full-strength Munster side.

Still, at the end of a difficult campaign it would set them up for the play-off nicely.

Verdict: Ulster

MUNSTER - S Fitzgerald; C Nash, S Arnold, D Goggin, D Sweetnam; JJ Hanrahan, D Williams; J Cronin, M Sherry (capt), B Scott; G Grobler, D O'Shea; D O'Callaghan, C Oliver, R Copeland. Reps: R Marshall, J Loughman, S Archer, J Kleyn, J O'Donoghue, J Hart, B Johnston, S Daly.

ULSTER - L Ludik; C Gilroy, L Marshall, S McCloskey, J Stockdale; J McPhillips, D Shanahan; C Black, R Best (capt), R Kane; A O'Connor, I Henderson; C Ross, S Reidy, N Timoney; Reps: R Herring, A Warwick, T O'Toole, K Treadwell, C Henry, P Marshall, A Curtis, T Bowe.

Ref - B Whitehouse (Wales).

  • Munster v Ulster, 5.15, TG4/Sky Sports/BBC NI

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