Belfast Telegraph

Ulster v Munster: Injury forces Neil Doak's hand with Peter Nelson in for Craig Gilroy

By Michael Sadlier

It's really now about controlling the controllables and, for Ulster, this essentially means two more wins, starting today when they host Munster in what is expected to be a full-on occasion at the Kingspan Stadium.

This one, though, will be a hugely significant test of Ulster's aspirations and not just of ultimately staying in control of their own destiny to hopefully bring the desired semi-final to Belfast, but potentially even having the ordinance to go on and lift the title at their home ground at the end of May.

Yes, but you still can't help but worry about today. For starters, losing Craig Gilroy to a hamstring strain is a mighty blow as the league's leading try scorer has been one of the side's star turns of late.

Munster will doubtless be delighted that the dancing feet which tore them apart so memorably at Thomond Park back in 2012 will not be seen and while Gilroy's absence for the hosts is notable, so is another player's return for the visitors with a certain Paul O'Connell being wheeled out.

Ulster, of course, still have their own big guns with Iain Henderson, Rory Best and Chris Henry up front while Ruan Pienaar, Paddy Jackson, Jared Payne and Tommy Bowe can all wreak havoc from behind the scrum. All, though, will have to be firing at optimum level against a powerful Munster on what is expected to be a damp afternoon.

It is hoped that Gilroy, who misses a great chance to impress Joe Schmidt, will be available for next week's last regulation outing at Glasgow.

Peter Nelson, who last started against Leinster in January, is brought in for Gilroy in the only change to Neil Doak's side. And with the in-form Keith Earls on the opposite wing, Nelson will have quite a challenge on his hands, as indeed will Bowe, who comes up against Simon Zebo.

There are match-ups to savour everywhere in this high-stakes derby but the real nub of the clash will be in how things play out up front - though, in fairness, Pienaar's meeting with Conor Murray is sure to be tasty.

Ulster's front five face a mammoth task to dominate their Munster counterparts, with O'Connell and Donnacha Ryan in the second row and props Dave Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer ready to do damage.

This will be a fearsome test for skipper Best and those immediately around him while Dan Tuohy and Franco van der Merwe know they must deliver big style at the set-pieces. Ulster's scrum will have to be at its most robust as well with Callum Black and Wiehahn Herbst not getting the wrong side of referee Nigel Owens.

The situation in the back row looks like an epic contest which could be the game's decisive factor. Dynamic efforts from star forward Henderson and Henry, along with another industrious outing from Roger Wilson - who becomes Ulster's most capped PRO12 player with 132 appearances - are essential requirements to keep Munster skipper Peter O'Mahony, Tommy O'Donnell and the impressive CJ Stander on the back foot.

Should Ulster get the nudge at the coal-face and at the breakdown, while also negating Munster's mauling game, they do have a much more balanced looking half-back partnership in Pienaar and the notably sharp Jackson, who can do his World Cup prospects no harm at all if he outshines Ian Keatley.

Pienaar's kicking, both from hand and tee, are sure to be critical factors while Jackson's game management, along with the sharpness of Payne and Darren Cave in midfield, do seem to give the hosts a definite edge.

Beating Munster is non-negotiable - while denying them any bonus points also looks rather important - if Ulster are going to win all 11 home games in this campaign's regulation season before travelling to Glasgow next Saturday for their last game before the semis.

Ulster currently sit third in the standings, one point behind Munster, but victories in their final two games would keep them at the Kingspan Stadium for the semi-finals.

Tommy Bowe said: "It would be nice to be in first or second position obviously but we're in a very good position in the sense that we currently have it all in our own hands.

"We obviously have two very difficult matches coming up with Munster at home and then Glasgow away but if we win both of those games we know we'll have a home semi-final.

"It's a massive goal and we're fully focused on two victories to get ourselves that home semi-final and hopefully things work out."

Something has to give for these two in-form and powerful inter-provincial rivals. However it all pans out, Ulster are going to have to earn things the hard way - and they can do it.

Belfast Telegraph


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