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Munster star Donncha O'Callaghan is geared up for a red-hot Ulster welcome

By Michael Sadlier

He knows a bit about playing in hostile environments and it's a knowledge accumulated by the heavy mileage clocked up during a decade and a half in the game. Ulster at home? It's a tough one, but Donncha O'Callaghan knows the drill.

Indeed there is now precious little that will faze the veteran second row. A record 264 appearances for Munster and two Heineken Cups sit alongside 94 Ireland caps and a Grand Slam, as well as being at three World Cups, while there is also the four British and Irish Lions Test appearances spread over two tours.

The 36-year-old Cork native is no longer an automatic first choice for his province - with one more year left on his contract - and is likely to be benched if he makes Saturday's match-day squad, but he is still contributing to the cause even though his once seemingly umbilical link with the totemic Paul O'Connell is now not so frequent in the red of Munster.

Though his reputation is still that of a joker - one of his most notable wheezes was to smuggle some ducks into one of Declan Kidney's Munster briefings - with such a massive amount of experience behind him, when O'Callaghan speaks it pays to listen up.

"It's one of the historical ones," he says of this key PRO12 meeting between second-placed Munster and Ulster, the latter a solitary spot and point behind with just two regulation season games to go before the semi-finals.

"In a derby game it doesn't matter who is eight points clear in the table, it matters that in 1942 they gave them horrible soup and sandwiches after a match. That is not forgotten," O'Callaghan adds, though this game has rather more at stake than any memory of bad catering with both sides going all out to win and stay in the scramble to take ultimate ownership of a home PRO12 semi-final.

"Tommy Seymour (the former Ulster player and now Glasgow winger) has actually said that Glasgow love coming to Belfast and I was thinking, 'are you crazy?'

"I'd love to be on the Glasgow bus if they love coming here. It's (the Kingspan) intimidating and it's tough," Callaghan said with that familiar mischievous smile.

"It's where you really get tested. Granted I'm not saying like him (Seymour) that I love coming to Belfast as you know you are going to be stiff and sore and you're going to get it, but it's still good because you want to play in these places. What is brilliant about coming up (to Belfast) is that it's a great stadium."

He even recalls a one-off situation when the crowd were actually behind the side he was playing for. It was a warm-up game for the 2007 World Cup when Ireland togged out at the then unrecognisable ground formerly known as Ravenhill. The occasion, just about won by the hosts, has stayed with him since.

Of rather more importance, though, is Saturday's outing at the Kingspan which is then followed by Munster's final home game of the regulation season against the Dragons. As long as they don't come away from Belfast empty-handed, O'Callaghan and his team-mates look well set-up to get maximum points from next weekend which could then bring their semi-final to Thomond Park from copper-fastening a top-two finish.

There are all manner of permutations on the go for the final finishing places of the sides already secure in the league's top four - current leaders Glasgow and the Ospreys, who play tomorrow, are the others alongside the two Irish provinces - but possibly making the Kingspan final and even potentially meeting Ulster again does not intimidate the veteran player.

"It would be like when Ulster won the European Cup at Lansdowne Road," says O'Callaghan, though, of course, not buying into the notion that Neil Doak's squad would actually be the winners.

"It will be a great final and you're itching to get there and it would certainly be tough if it was Ulster, but it's always tough when it is Ulster."

Though Ulster's last trophy was way back in 2006, Munster would also consider themselves in the midst of a fallow period having last won any shiny stuff in 2011 when they lifted the PRO12.

"The lads in the squad who have been there want it again and the guys who haven't yet are itching for it, so it's a massive drive (for us) but then this is a ruthless part of the season."

A home semi-final seems to be a prerequisite for success in this competition but O'Callaghan is far too cute to let much slip regarding Munster's strong-looking position.

"We know as a squad that doesn't work for us, we have to go week by week, none of us are looking beyond that," he adds.

"We know when we start looking longer (than week by week) we'll fall on our backsides and that's not good."

As ever, direct and to the point.

Belfast Telegraph

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