Ulster v Munster: All Irish eyes are watching this inter-pro showdown - and Andrew Trimble is back training with Rugby World Cup in his sights
Today’s Ulster v Munster showdown at the Kingspan Stadium (2.40pm) has been billed as a casting call for Ireland’s Rugby World Cup preparations.
And with the likes of Paddy Jackson, Dan Tuohy, Iain Henderson, Chris Henry and Darren Cave (Ulster) and Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell and Ian Keatley (Munster) eager to show what they can do — as well as win this crucial PRO12 encounter — there’s plenty at stake.
Andrew Trimble, like the injured Craig Gilroy, will be a frustrated spectator, however.
Trimble has been out of action since last October after damaging the same toe twice. But the winger has now been given the all-clear to resume training — and Ireland’s World Cup warm-up games in August are in his sights, so the message is: don’t write me off.
“I feel this break has freshened me up mentally as well as physically,” said Trimble, who has been doing a lot of rowing to keep up his fitness levels.
And having admitted he was “10 per cent jealous and 90 per cent delighted” to see Ireland retain the Six Nations without him, no doubt he’ll feel something similar should Ulster prevail against an old enemy today and take another step closer to hosting their PRO12 semi-final in two weeks’ time.
With both teams gunning for a home play-off — and Ulster a point behind Munster with two games to go before the knockout stages begin — today’s derby clash is expected to be a titanic tussle.
Last full-on trial before World Cup build up
By Michael Sadlier
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 team).
Every other side is fighting either for a Champions Cup spot or a home semi-final 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 at 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.
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 the Kingspan, 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, it won't be on the same competitive planet as Ulster v Munster. 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, Darren Cave and Stuart McCloskey, the stakes are particularly high - and fellow Ireland hopeful Craig Gilroy is missing today through injury.
Tuohy and Jackson are realistic contenders for a berth on the Irish bench, while Henderson and Henry should be targeting a place in the starting XV.
Opportunity knocks for Tuohy, 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 close behind.
For Jackson, the signs are of a burgeoning talent maturing at last. The time has come to assert himself in the Jonny Sexton/Ronan O'Gara mould. His clash with Ian Keatley has another potential either/or look about it, although Ian Madigan might have something to say about that.
I am a big Gilroy fan but the wing is chasing a position in which Schmidt is coming down with so many alternatives.
His injury is unfortunate and gives opposite number Keith Earls the opportunity to join Dave Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Luke Fitzgerald and Andrew Trimble in the race for selection alongside Tommy Bowe and Simon Zebo.
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.