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David Kelly: Belfast fate shares top billing with Paris date for Munster

 

Irish eye: Ulster scrum-half John Cooney will be keen to make his mark against Ireland's incumbent No 9 Conor Murray
Irish eye: Ulster scrum-half John Cooney will be keen to make his mark against Ireland's incumbent No 9 Conor Murray
David Kelly

By David Kelly

The next fortnight harbours immediate significance on the double for Munster.

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And, whisper it, emerging with a win from Belfast tonight may be of much more long-term value for Johann van Graan's side if they do not want their yawning title famine to extend into yet another season.

After tonight's engagement, they head to Paris on Sunday week for a win-or-bust tie in a Champions Cup pool complicated by their struggles to dominate opposition at home.

And these are precisely the reasons why success in Europe is likely to remain, for another tournament at least, as elusive as it has been since their last title win in 2008.

There are no profound reasons, based on logical evidence, that Munster are more likely to win a Champions Cup title in 2020 than they were in 2019 or 2018; emotional deductions are even more irrelevant.

Far better for Munster to end their trophy drought by focusing on domestic success and, with their competitive Conference - a welcome anomaly for the much-derided Guinness PRO14 - concertinaing with every passing week, getting the points tonight may prove immensely valuable.

It is one of the quirks of a competition which remains sadly beyond the grasp of many that these sides can meet even though they are not in the same Conference; Ulster are in the 'A' table, where there is absolutely none of the intrigue that exists in Munster's group.

Barring unlikely calamity, Ulster will now finish in second behind Leinster, who will advance directly to the semi-finals, their reward for topping the table.

Munster will eagerly seek the same and the chance for Irish fans to see a derby of real import in a showpiece final.

Getting the job done tonight, then, will aid that cause and, even if they are down a few bodies due to IRFU player management, the reserve front-row strength on the bench, a fully fit Joey Carbery and a back-row which does not have to face Marcell Coetzee in an Ulster jersey should see them home.

It could be the best of the festive bunch; Iain Henderson and Jacob Stockdale are back for Ulster and there is also the intriguing sub-plot which sees Conor Murray and John Cooney indulging in a potential shoot-out for the Ireland No 9 jersey to face Scotland in Andy Farrell's first game in charge.

Coetzee's absence might hinder Cooney's chances if his other forward colleagues are unable to step up to the march but the tight five should be demanding early dominance to allow him to make a few salient points to the assistant coach who may have been complicit in his World Cup absence last year.

Ulster have had a more than satisfactory interprovincial campaign and a win here would seal it; they make only three changes - Nick Timoney joining the Irish duo as he stands in for Coetzee - from that which completed the expected win against Connacht last time out.

Jordi Murphy is marked absent as he has been for the last month.

Peter O'Mahony, Niall Scannell, Andrew Conway and Keith Earls are among those who return for Munster as only Fineen Wycherley, Jack O'Donoghue, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell and Shane Daly retain their places; albeit Daly shifts to full-back.

While Munster have expanded their playing range this term, only one try in their last two games may be of some concern, with much expectation now falling upon Carbery's return to kick-start the revolution being instigated by Stephen Larkham.

"They have changed it up this year with Stephen Larkham coming in," agrees Ulster centre Luke Marshall, who offers a refreshingly honest appraisal of tonight's visitors.

"Without being disrespectful to them, they are playing a wee bit more rugby now rather than their traditional 10-man style they used to play, though they can revert to that because they have a dominant pack.

"A lot of their wide starter plays are generally quite new because traditionally they don't play a lot of wide rugby and now they do.

"It's not just Larkham coming in but the backline they have coming in is now one of the best in the league.

"They have so much talent out wide and I think they realise they need to use it and not just rely on their pack. It makes them pretty tough to play against."

Tonight will offer a significant measurement of just how tough.

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