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Ulster v Munster: Munster are on a hot run despite Paul O'Connell talk

By Michael Sadlier

It has perhaps been a welcome distraction from the intensity of the race to try and bring a semi-final to Thomond Park, but the continuing speculation over Paul O'Connell's future just doesn't want to go away.

Even though the man himself recently stated that he was around 90% certain what he will do after this autumn's World Cup - he is contracted until June 2016 - which sounded as if he would stick around, the subject was again raised earlier this week in the aftermath of a Munster training session.

While his name has been bandied about with a move to Toulon to initial incredulity, the noises made by Mourad Boudjellal - the owner of the star-studded three-in-a-row European champions - about O'Connell potentially coming to the south of France have only kept the pot boiling and particularly so with veteran second rows Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams hanging up their boots.

Indeed, Munster coach Anthony Foley found himself venturing his own hope that his totemic second row - who skippered Ireland to back-to-back Six Nations titles - would be staying on after the autumn.

The man himself is playing today and the 35-year-old's presence will be vital for Munster as they bid to become the first side to win at the Kingspan in the PRO12 since Leinster managed it 12 months ago.

Mind you, wondering aloud about what will happen to O'Connell is hardly a sufficient smokescreen as Munster's current form in the PRO12 has been far from low profile.

One defeat and a draw in their last eight PRO12 outings shows they are a side on a roll and, rather ominously for Ulster, they are the league's most impressive away team having amassed 30 of their current 68 points on their travels.

They have made three changes to the side who gained maximum points from Treviso with O'Connell's return the most significant as he packs down with Donnacha Ryan in a pretty powerful looking engine room.

Elsewhere, hooker Eusebio Guinazu comes in for Duncan Casey and makes up a strong front row alongside Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer. The only other alteration sees Denis Hurley come in at centre.

The pack definitely has a mighty look about it with skipper Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and CJ Stander making up the back row but they have an impressive backline too and quite a fearsome back three with Felix Jones, Simon Zebo and Keith Earls poised for action while Conor Murray, at scrum-half, is influential.

Without a trophy since 2011's PRO12 success, Munster know that if they can negotiate their way through today with preferably a win, or at worst a losing bonus point or two, then that play-off could be on the way to Limerick with only the Dragons to see off next week at the same venue.

All that could be an added incentive to keep O'Connell going after the World Cup.

Belfast Telegraph

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