Double-header tests Ulster’s panel to full
Ulster's resources will be stretched to the limit this weekend with both the senior and Ravens sides in action on successive days.
With Ulster having a smaller squad than most other professional clubs, the scheduling of two matches in less than 24 hours will test their playing personnel as never before.
Nor do they have the luxury of being able to treat either of those fixtures as being of secondary importance. On the contrary, both are highly significant with the Ravens meeting Munster A in Limerick for a place in the final of the inaugural British and Irish Cup (3.30pm), followed the next day by their seniors’ Magners League date with Edinburgh at Murrayfield.
The table shows just how desperate Ulster’s need of points has become; to match last season’s final tally of 36 not only would they have to beat Edinburgh and Connacht in their final two matches, they would also be required to bank try-scoring bonuses in each of those games. Let’s just say that is improbable.
These are testing circumstances which underline Ulster’s lack of strength in depth.
To the fact that their squad is small add injuries to Justin Fitzpatrick, Matt McCullough, Cillian Willis, Adam Macklin, Bryn Cunningham and Mark McCrea. And then bear in mind that when they lined out against Glasgow Warriors last Friday night they were without injured Irish internationals Rory Best, Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, plus Timoci Nagusa. In such circumstances the challenge posed by two matches in 24 hours is daunting.
Nor will the Ravens’ prospects against opponents who have beaten them in this season’s inter-pro meetings be helped by the fact that Thomond Park is likely to see a huge attendance for this British and Irish Cup semi-final.
That is because the hosts have boxed cleverly by marketing it in tandem with a top four Munster-Ospreys Magners League showdown by offering a two matches for one ticket price deal.
Following Munster’s second string’s outing against the Ravens the Munster seniors will face the star-studded Welsh and with that also being Tony McGahan's side’s last game before their Heineken Cup semi-final against Biarritz Olympique, clearly the scheduling has worked to their advantage in this instance.
Currently Ospreys and Munster occupy second and third spots in the Magners League race, both having bagged 43 points from 16 outings. And with a top four place being the prize both are chasing, their head-to-head will attract a bumper crowd to the Limerick stronghold.
Add the fact that the Ravens have lost both of this season’s inter-pro meetings to this weekend’s opponents and Munster become firm favourites.
Ulster will start as underdogs the following afternoon, too, when they line put against Edinburgh in the Scottish capital.
With Brian McLaughlin’s side having dropped perilously close to Connacht at the worrying end of the Magners League table, they need something to show for their travels.
That won’t be easy; they last won in Edinburgh in February 2006, since when they have lost three successive Magners League matches at Murrayfield as well as a Heineken Cup group stage match at the same venue last autumn.
The memory of that October 17 defeat still haunts Ulster for they went 13-6 up early in the second half when Nagusa scored a try which was converted by Ian Humphreys who also kicked two earlier penalties.
But Humphreys was eclipsed by his opposite number, Phil Godman, who landed four penalties, with Tim Visser’s try 15 minutes from the end proving decisive.