The Inside Track: Munster's CJ Stander v Ulster's Nick Williams
Jonathan Bradley runs his eye over all the key battles and showdowns in tonight’s massive inter-provincial tussle taking a look at the head to heads, the main threats and the tactical approaches.
Head to head:
CJ Stander v Nick Williams
While it is certainly local pride at stake in this interprovincial clash, the contest could be lit up by a southern hemisphere head to head.
There is likely to be no quarter given between the burly number 8s on show and both will look to get their teammates on the front foot with some explosive carries.
Former Munster player Nick Williams' return to the Ulster pack offers more of a threat with ball in hand and, while he is perhaps not as solid as some other options, his intensity in gainline collisions should be perfectly suited to this kind of game.
The South African CJ Stander, who will be eligible to represent Ireland after the World Cup, has been enjoying his rugby again this season and appears much more suited to the gameplan chosen by Anthony Foley. Often out of the starting XV under Rob Penney, the one-time captain of the Baby Boks has slimmed down slightly and is reaping the benefits with his big carries now a focal point of Munster's game.
Duncan Casey v Rory Best player
Ulster captain Rory Best put in another stirring effort for Ireland against Australia last week, but he is pitched straight back into provincial duty against Munster this evening.
The hooker showed no ill-effects from his recent calf injury against the Wallabies when, a couple of crooked lineout throws aside, he was once again superb.
Munster’s problems at hooker continued last week when Eusebio Guinazu, brought in on a short-term deal to cover injuries to Mike Sherry and Damien Varley, also picked up and injury. Duncan Casey slotted back into the jersey seamlessly and scored two-second half tries. The 24-year-old could impress against Ireland’s first-choice No.2 tonight.
JJ Hanrahan v Stuart Olding
While Stuart Olding will never want to be considered a utility back, and prefers to play at inside centre, he is selected at fullback for the third Pro12 game in succession.
The 21-year-old, who scored his first international try when coming off the bench against Georgia a fortnight ago, offers a real running threat from deep, but was not given much chance to shine against the Ospreys last week in terrible weather conditions.
He will look to display his creativity again tonight, but against Munster in Thomond Park, his ability underneath the high ball will prove equally important.
An outhalf by trade, JJ Hanrahan appears to have lost out to Ian Keatley in the battle to replace Ronan O’Gara, but Ulster may kick for space in order to test his familiarity with the position.
The main threats
Whether it was leaked emails, poor attendances or surprising home defeats, Anthony Foley’s Munster reign got off to an inauspicious start after he replaced Rob Penney last summer.
Since that stuttering beginning, however, Munster have been in great form and their run of six consecutive wins began with a dominant showing against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium.
Without Conor Murray and Simon Zebo after their international exertions, they have been denied two of the big game-breakers in their backline but still have players who can offer attacking thrust when on form.
Neither Ian Keatley nor JJ Hanrahan are the most consistent in attack but on their day both can be a handful while there is a dual ball-carrying threat in the backrow.
Robin Copeland and CJ Stander will both look to smash over the gainline and have the physicality to cause Ulster problems.
Despite leading them to consecutive Heineken Cup semi-finals in his two-year tenure, Rob Penney’s time as Munster coach was hardly seen as an unmitigated success and his tactical approach has been shunned by the more traditional Foley.
The days of locks popping up on the wing at Thomond Park are by and large over, with the new coach returning to the philosophy that saw him win two European titles as a player.
Ulster will need to front up and match their hosts in the tight but they have proven more than capable of such showings when beating the likes of Glasgow and the Ospreys.
Both sides will look to build on the platform of a solid scrum but Munster’s forwards are more likely to hold on to the ball.
With a strong three-quarter line, Ulster will look to the backs to inflict damage but much will depend on whether they can ensure sufficiently quick ball.