Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

RaboDirect Pro12: It’s going to get a lot tougher for Ulster

Events in the RaboDirect PRO12 over the weekend have left Ulster feeling good about themselves and their prospects of a place in the play-offs.

Three tries either side of half-time — all of them converted — saw them thrash Aironi 45-7 on Friday night to remain on target.

Ulster’s last outing before facing Munster in Sunday’s Heineken Cup quarter-final was a timely morale-boost, albeit concern over Stephen Ferris’s rolled ankle took a little of the shine off the victory. Yesterday, coach Brian McLaughlin said Ferris was “doubtful at this stage”. The flanker will undergo a scan today.

But with or without Ferris, Ulster believe they can beat Munster. On Saturday night Leinster’s wholly-deserved 18-9 PRO12 win confirmed Thomond Park can be stormed by visiting sides provided they refuse to be intimidated and are willing to fight fire with conflagration.

The Blues’ lowering of the red flag, coupled with Ulster’s own recent form – victories in eight of their last nine PRO12 games – will see McLaughlin’s heroes fly from Belfast International Airport to Shannon in good spirits at lunch-time on Saturday, despite the Thomond Park factor.

Six times Munster have played a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Limerick, winning the lot. If Ulster are to progress they must do something which has proved too much for Stade Francais (2000 and 2004), Biarritz Olympique, Perpignan, Ospreys and Northampton Saints.

McLaughlin is convinced they can do that, though he admits the intensity of the forthcoming battle will make Friday’s match against Aironi look like a bout of friendly sparring.

“Compared to Friday night this is going to be a brutal encounter. Munster are ferocious; they just keep on coming at you, non-stop, so it’s going to be intensely physical,” he said. “But hopefully what we have learnt in the past year against Northampton, Leicester and Clermont will stand us in good stead.

“I firmly believe that if we go down there with all the boxes ticked, we have a great chance.

“There is no doubt in my mind that we can go there and win this if we’re at our level best. If we turn in a performance like we did against Leicester at Ravenhill we are capable of beating anybody.

“It’s about making sure that everything is right for us on the day. If that happens, I’d be more than confident,” he added.

Munster’s unimpressive showing against Leinster must be balanced by the fact that they fielded an under-strength line-up.

Sunday will see a better Munster side take to the pitch

in defence of an awesome record at a venue where they have not lost in the Heineken Cup since January 2007, a dead-rubber when they had already qualified for the knock-out stages.

Marcus Horan — whose best years are some distance behind him — will not start; his place on the loose-side side of the front row will go to Wian du Preez whose inclusion should assist the Munster scrum.

In addition, locks Paul O’Connell and Donnacha Ryan are due to resume training and their inclusion would boost the Munster pack considerably as well. The hosts would benefit, too, from the availability of a fit-again Conor Murray rather than Tomas O’Leary at scrum-half.

All that said, O’Connell and Murray have not played since March 4 when they were injured while on duty for Ireland against France in Paris so, even if they do make it, there will be a tad of rust after a month on the sidelines.

Keith Earls could be a doubt, the injured outside centre having been replaced late on in Saturday night’s bruising derby.

If that match proved anything, it was that this Munster back line is not particularly creative and if Earls does not make it, their ability in that respect will be further reduced.

Even so, speaking after the demolition of Aironi, Ulster captain Johann Muller stressed the need for even more if Munster are to be beaten.

“The animal we are playing this weekend is a totally different one,” he warned.

“Munster are great scrummagers and they have a great line-out so obviously first phase is key. We know how physical they’re going to be.”

And as he sees it, being as good as Munster will not be enough; Ulster must be better than their opponents if they are to create history.

“If we just match them we’re probably going to end up losing, like we did at Leicester,” he said. “So we have to up our physical performance.

“But if we do that, we have a really good chance of coming out on top.”

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