Wednesday 21 March 2018

Tony Ward: Henderson's big chance to challenge O'Mahony for Ireland starting spot

Ulster forward Iain Henderson should be targeting a place in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup XV
Ulster forward Iain Henderson should be targeting a place in Joe Schmidt’s World Cup XV
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

We can question the motives of the Anglo-French alliance in replacing the Heineken Cup with the Champions Cup, but the competition didn't change in any substantial way.

It was a little more competitive this time round with fewer teams, but not in an earth-shattering manner.

Where the real difference can be seen is in the knock-on effect on the three domestic leagues, where the concept of 'meritocracy' (qualification for the European top table on merit and not by right) has been a huge success.

With just two series of games to go in the Pro12, nearly every club has something to play for (Newport-Gwent Dragons and Cardiff Blues are the exceptions, and even they are battling to avoid being the bottom-placed Welsh side).

Every other side is fighting either for a Champions Cup spot or a home semi-finals in the Pro12 - compare this situation with the number of dead rubbers at this stage of the campaign in times past.

The identity of the four semi-finalists has already been established but the race is on for home advantage in those last-four clashes.


So today's meeting in the Kingspan is massive. With Ulster travelling to Glasgow in the final round, Munster, who host Dragons next week, could possibly afford to lose in Belfast.

There is also a tournament within a tournament, with the inter-provincial series set to be decided on this afternoon's outcome. As things stand the four provinces look this:

There was a time when the inter-provincial series really mattered, and yet even then the sides only played each other once a season.

Where the parallel still holds is in terms of preparation for the national team. Inter-provincial games were seen as mini-trials in the build-up to the dreaded Final Trial and all that nightmare ordeal entailed.

There has always been an edge to Munster-Ulster games, and today will be no different. Whether at Thomond Park or Ravenhill, the atmosphere is uncompromising.

And while winning is clearly the prime objective, there are other issues at stake. For Joe Schmidt and his back-room team, this is to all intents and purposes the last full-on trial before the World Cup build-up begins in earnest in August.

Yes, Ireland take on the Barbarians in Limerick later this month but with due respect to everyone involved, in terms of competitiveness, it won't be on the same competitive planet as Ulster v Munster, no matter what the Baa-Baas spin doctors might say.

For a number of players on both sides - especially those wearing the home colours - this 80 minutes is vital.

For Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry, Paddy Jackson and Darren Cave, the stakes are particularly high.

Tuohy and Jackson are realistic contenders for a berth on the Ireland bench if they are at peak form, while Henderson and Henry (despite still being in the early stages of his comeback) should be targeting a place in the starting XV.

Opportunity knocks for Tuohy and rival second-row Donnacha Ryan (another making his way back), while the versatile Henderson's blindside battle with Peter O'Mahony has that feel of 'clash of the day'.

Mind you, Henry's joust with Tommy O'Donnell is pretty close behind.

For Jackson, the signs are of a burgeoning talent maturing at last. The time has come to assert himself in the Johnny Sexton/Ronan O'Gara mould.

His clash with Ian Keatley (so effective against Italy back in February) has another potential either/or look about it, although Ian Madigan might have something to say about that.

We are denied another intriguing showdown by the injury to Craig Gilroy.

I am a big Gilroy fan but the Ulster wing is chasing a position in which Schmidt is coming down with alternatives - Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald, Keith Earls - so it's a real shame he misses out on a chance to impress against Earls.

Zebo, having lost out to Fitzgerald for the Six Nations finale in Murrayfield, will be champing at the bit to make his case in his confrontation with Bowe.

Forecast: What price the draw?

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