In their first Guinness PRO14 match of the decade, two evenly matched sides clash in Round 10 as Munster take a trip to Belfast.
Ulster haven’t lost at home in the Guinness PRO14 this season, securing a 35-3 win thumping against Connacht last time out.
While Munster are coming off the back of a 13-6 defeat at home to Leinster, Johann van Graan’s men still sit top of Conference B with their six victories from nine
However, Ulster will be hoping to get the better or their visitors and overturn the result in Round 6, which saw Munster take the plaudits with a 22-16 victory.
Kick-off: Kingspan Stadium | KO 19.35 (UK), Friday 3 January
How to watch: | Live on eir sport 1, Premier Sports 1, DAZN, pro14.tv
Players to watch out for: John Cooney (Ulster); Joey Carbery (Munster)
John Cooney is arguably the most in-form scrum-half in the northern hemisphere after a scintillating second half of 2019 that has seen him shine both domestically and in Europe.
His game-breaking attacking skillset has left defence after defence flat-footed, while his metronomic kicking has also been pivotal in Ulster controlling the scoreboard.
The No.9 will surely be in new Ireland coach Andy Farrell’s plans for the upcoming Guinness Six Nations, as will fit-again Munster fly-half Joey Carbery.
The heir apparent to Johnny Sexton, for both club and country, had to emerge from the veteran’s shadow by moving from Leinster to Munster 18 months ago and has continually evolved as a player ever since.
Having always had the explosive aspect to his game, Carbery is developing into an all-round No.10 and after coming through 25 minutes unscathed against his former employers in his return from an ankle injury last time out, the 24-year-old is ready make his mark at the Kingspan.
Key stat: The last three matches between the two rivals have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst Munster’s most recent success in Belfast was by a single point in October 2016.
Ulster: Will Addison, Robert Baloucoune, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Jacob Stockdale, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Jack McGrath, Rob Herring, Marty Moore, Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson, Matthew Rea, Sean Reidy, Nick Timoney
Replacements: John Andrew, Kyle McCall, Tom O’Toole, David O’Connor, Greg Jones, David Shanahan, Bill Johnston, Craig Gilroy
Munster: Shane Daly, Andrew Conway, Sammy Arnold, Rory Scannell, Keith Earls, Joey Carbery, Conor Murray, Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Keynan Knox, Fineen Wycherley, Darren O’Shea, Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue, Arno Botha
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Dave Kilcoyne, John Ryan, Gavin Coombes, Jack O’Sullivan, Neil Cronin, Dan Goggin, Chris Cloete
Ulster boosted their Guinness PRO14 title credentials with a thrilling Round 10 win over Irish rivals Munster at the Kingspan, whose defeat sees them knocked off the top of Conference B by Scarlets, who won at Cardiff Blues.
Shane Daly put Munster in front and Niall Scannell scored late on, but tries from John Cooney, Robert Baloucoune, Matty Rea, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale were enough for the Belfast-based side to notch their seventh win of the season.
The game started at a ferocious pace and the hosts demonstrated their desire to assert their authority from the off with an impressive line break from prop Jack McGrath.
But the three-time champions successfully weathered the first Ulster storm and were the first to strike when Daly bulldozed over in the corner with less than ten minutes on the clock.
Cooney got Dan McFarland’s men on the board with a penalty in the 15th minute, and three minutes later notched his eighth try of the season with a thrilling team score as Ulster edged their noses in front.
Ulster continued to press as the clock ticked towards half-time, and after Will Addison dropped the ball with the line at his mercy, Baloucoune capitalised on a period of sustained pressure to extend their advantage.
But with the break just seconds away, Munster regained some momentum as Joey Carbery kicked three points with the last play, thus reducing the deficit to seven points.
Ulster hit back early in the second half however, Rea slipping through the Munster defence following a lineout to put his side firmly in the driving seat with 42 minutes gone.
Having come within inches of the bonus-point score four minutes later, Ulster eventually got their fourth through McCloskey three minutes shy of the hour, leaving their opponents with plenty of work to do.
And Stockdale made matters worse moments later with a fantastic breakaway score, intercepting a loose pass to go over for his first Guinness PRO14 try since January 2019.
Scannell powered over for the visitors to give the Munstermen some hope with 15 minutes left on the clock, but Ulster ultimately proved good value for the win.
Plenty of the home XV were worthy of recognition with each of the back row, and John Cooney, proving invaluable to the 2005/06 champions.
But McCloskey was undoubtedly the standout star, showcasing a dominant performance both in attack and defence, which he topped off with a deserved score.
There were several thrilling passages of play to choose from in this enthralling encounter, but Cooney’s 18th-minute try was very easy on the eye and truly burst his team into life.
Shane Daly’s high kick was taken impressively by Will Addison and as the ball spread wide, Jacob Stockdale found a gap before teeing up Cooney expertly who – in typical fashion – made no mistake.