An Irish derby quarter-final in Thomond Park really re-enforces the fact that Ulster have finally emerged from a decade-long slump. They fought their way through a difficult but fortunately timetabled group, and after a rocky start to the season are now on something of a run, having won their last four games.
It’s a tighter forecast than I would have expected before the Six Nations. At hooker, Best and Varley both have dodgy darts, but away from the touchline the Ulsterman has had a simply outstanding season for both province and country. Tighthead John Afoa has been magnificent since his arrival, and Tom Court will be very eager – bulling, even – to make amends for the public schooling he took against England. He’s no class of international tighthead, but he’s a reasonably good loosehead, and is very familiar with BJ Botha from the three seasons they spent together at Ravenhill. That will be a contest to keep an eye on. Dan Tuohy will likewise be keen to show Irish rugby fans that his omission from the Six Nations squad was a bad mistake, and that his smashing form for Ulster should have been rewarded at opposite number O’Callaghan’s expense.
Ulster had a group of traditionally tough-scrummaging teams, with Leicester and Clermont renowned around Europe for their prowess in the tight set-piece. The ASM pack shorn of Argentine legends “Super” Mario Ledesma and Martín Scelzo and down Thomas Domingo and Zirakashvili due to injury isn’t the fearsome beast that it once was, even with Belgian Vincent Debaty and Lionel Faure stepping into the breach. However, Leicester’s scrum is still a very strong unit, with Martin Castrogiovanni, Dan Cole, Marcus Ayerza and Boris Stankovich sharing the propping duties and Hawkins or Chuter at hooker. Making it through that group is testament that Ulster’s scrum did more than survive, so The Mole expects them to have a small advantage over their counterparts. While BJ Botha’s influence has seen an enormous improvement on Munsters scrum compared to last season, they’re by no means a bulldozer pack who plows everyone out of their way. Neither du Preez nor Horan are likely to get much change out of Afoa, and Botha won’t be able to hurt Court as much as some may expect.
Stephen Ferris has been in outstanding form, and if available for selection will bring more power and carrying ability to the table than anything that Munster can rustle up. Wannenburg and James ‘Germany’ Coughlan are both stalwarts of their respective clubs at No8, with the Munsterman having started eighteen games this season and the South African a whopping twenty-one. Coughlan was rightly acclaimed Munster’s Player of the Season last year, but he hasn’t quite hit those heights this year, while Wannenburg has put together a much-improved series of performances for his adopted province, with a great deal of football to go along with all the expected boshery.
O’Gara will target the Ulster wingers, Gilroy and Trimble. Neither are instinctive counter-attackers. Gilroy is inexperienced and while an already accomplished finisher, he doesn’t seem like a huge threat in broken play. Andrew Trimble has unquestionably improved his finishing skills [his two tries against Leicester in Ravenhill were very well-taken], but is still more of a battering-ram than a skeleton key when it comes to counter-attacking.
Keith Earls was kept very quiet on Saturday by the Leinster defense, something of a coup given his fine form in recent weeks. His Six Nations at No13 was one of the relative successes of Ireland’s tournament, and he looks odds-on to become Brian O’Driscoll’s successor in that position. However, Darren Cave will have his eyes on the prize too. Cave has had a couple of issues with injury and lacks the top-end speed that Earls brings to the table; however, he has played far more consistently at outside centre than Earls, and was extremely highly regarded as he progressed through the ranks of representative underage teams. This will be another interesting individual contest.
Conor Murray’s absence from or presence in the Munster startling line-up will have a big impact on the game. His injury against France looked severe, and it was something of a surprise that he was only ruled out for a relatively short period. However, while there are positive noises about the return of Ryan and O’Connell, news on Murray has been in much shorter supply. Munster are very short of kicking backs, and while Tomás O’Leary’s provincial form has rebounded somewhat from the depths he explored against England, he’s still not much of a kicker compared to Murray. Felix Jones is hardly renowned for his kicking ability at fullback, and the less said about Lifeimi Mafi, in this regard at least, the better! In contrast, Ulster are likely to field Paddy Wallace at No12, who gives tremendous versatility as a distributor and footballer. Stefan Terblanche isn’t exactly Juan Martín Hernandez when it comes to punting, but he’s experienced and steady.
Ulster have a set of battle-hardened, high quality NIQs in Afoa, Muller, Wannenburg, Pienaar and Terblanche, in-form internationals like Best and Ferris and players like Chris Henry, Dan Tuohy, Paul Marshall who will be nursing a grievance about being overlooked for test rugby in favour of Munster players. Beyond that, it’s difficult to get a feeling for how McLaughlin uses the bench. The province had two blow-outs against Aironi, and there was the Ravenhill massacre of Leicester in early January; the bench was cleared in all three games with the result wrapped up long before the final whistle. However, there were just two substitutions in the final game of their group [away to Clermont], and while there are some useful young players on the Ulster bench in loosehead Paddy McAllister, second row Lewis Stevenson, centre Nevin Spence and fullback Adam D’Arcy, they’re more prospects than game-changers.
While Botha and du Preez have been very solid all season, they’ll be expected to go the full length again, as will the majority of the pack. Mike Sherry will see gametime at hooker [likely off the bench] but there’s no real punch available to Munster in terms of substitutions. Tony McGahan was able to use Donncha O’Callaghan, Denis Leamy and Will Chambers effectively off in the bench in the group stages, but these options simply aren’t open to him anymore. Ian Keatley, Danny Barnes and Johne Murphy are the likely backline substitutes, and won’t strike fear into anyone.
The Thomond factor and the return of Paul O’Connell will have a huge effect on the game, but unless Munster spark like they did against Northampton, this will be a seriously tight and tetchy affair played largely between the two starting XVs, with little interference from the bench.