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It's crucial that Ulster hit ground running, says Soper

Making point: Jacob Stockdale listens to what Ulster coach Dwayne Peel has to say
Making point: Jacob Stockdale listens to what Ulster coach Dwayne Peel has to say

By Michael Sadlier

Suddenly we are on unfamiliar ground as there is the strong potential of a regulation season inter-provincial with real bite to it.

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All too often the opposite is the case but, this time, it would appear that both Irish provinces are likely to be going pretty much close to full strength when Ulster travel to another less than happy hunting ground when they head south to Munster.

Which means that Dan McFarland may well choose to deploy some combination, if not all of them, of club skipper Iain Henderson, Jacob Stockdale and Jordi Murphy.

All three have had their down-time from Ireland's hugely disappointing World Cup and have been integrated back into training this week.

The general mood music suggests they will be involved to not only contribute towards keeping Ulster more than competitive at Thomond Park but also allow the trio to bed-in ahead of the two opening weekends of European action.

Ulster could well also have prop Marty Moore, centre Stuart McCloskey and winger Robert Baloucoune all back in the squad again.

Should this come to pass, for Moore and Baloucoune it would be the first time either has been seen this season as injuries have ruled them out of any earlier participation.

As for the luckless Will Addison, the utility back looks set for another spell on the sidelines after picking up a shoulder injury against Zebre

And Louis Ludik may also be ruled out of taking on Munster as he is undergoing return to play protocols after suffering a concussion when facing the Italians in last Friday's rain-drenched win.

Also on the injury front, young centre James Hume will now be missing for up to four months after undergoing surgery following a torn hamstring he picked up against Cardiff Blues.

But back to Saturday and with Munster - who are top of the PRO14's Conference B and like Ulster have only tasted defeat at the Cheetahs so far - looking well set to put out most of their players who were in Japan, it would seem only logical that Ulster would try and do the same.

Then there is the matter of last year's record 64-7 pasting handed out to McFarland's men when they were last in Limerick.

This has naturally left occasionally visible scars and has already been referenced both before and immediately after the Zebre game.

And with the weekend's round of PRO14 games being the last before the opening salvoes are fired in the Champions Cup, there is a real edge to this Irish derby.

Ulster skills coach Dan Soper said: "We're under no doubt that this weekend is a really tough challenge.

"That it's the week before Europe in some ways is quite good as it gives us a real focus this week.

"Maybe with another fixture you'd be a wee bit distracted by what's coming down the road but we're 100% focused on this weekend."

And then there's that record defeat which John Cooney, Luke Marshall and McFarland all alluded to last week.

"Last year we didn't start the game well and went 17-0 down pretty quickly (after just 16 minutes) and once you're in an environment like that if you give them a bit of a head start you make your job pretty tough," stated Soper.

"So I think it's important we get down there and get off to a good start.

"We didn't go down there (last year) expecting that result," he added.

"We're going down to win and put in a good performance and it's essential that we put in a good performance for the bigger picture.

"We're in a really competitive conference (Ulster are second in Conference A) and those points are going to be vital down the road.

"We have to have that if we are going to be a team who are competitive come the business end of the season."

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