Ulster welcome Munster to the Kingspan Stadium on Guinness PRO14 derby day in a cross-Conference match-up as both sides look to keep the pressure on their respective Conference leaders Glasgow Warriors and Leinster.
Munster ruthlessly handed Ulster their heaviest defeat in Guinness PRO14 history with a 64-7 win at Thomond Park back in round five.
But Ulster have a fantastic opportunity to avenge that defeat, while a win for Munster would secure second place in the table at Christmas. This highly-anticipated contest will play out in front of a raucous crowd at the Kingspan Stadium at 7.35pm on Friday.
What’s at stake?
The two sides will be hoping to continue their winning momentum, after both recording a win in round ten.
Ulster ran out as 16-12 winners against the Cardiff Blues at the Kingspan Stadium despite being outscored by two tries to one. Accurate goal-kicking from scrum-half John Cooney – as well as a well-taken Kieran Treadwell try – ensured that they kept the pressure on second-placed Scarlets in conference B, and that they pulled away from Benetton in fourth.
Meanwhile, Munster smashed Edinburgh Rugby 44-14 at Thomond Park last time out, with Keith Earls making it 50 tries for Munster. But with Connacht on a five-match unbeaten run in all competitions, it seems that Munster will need a win to avoid being overtaken by the Galway men into second in Conference A.
Team news (Ulster): Rob Herring starts at hooker and takes over the captaincy, while lock Ian Nagle returns from injury to make his first start for the province.
Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore will join Herring in the front row, while Kieran Treadwell will pack down beside Nagle in the second row. The loose forward combination of Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy and Marcell Coetzee is unchanged.
The half-back axis of John Cooney and Billy Burns is retained along with the midfield pairing of Stuart McCloskey and Will Addison.
Team news (Munster): Jaco Taute captains Munster for the first time as head coach Johann van Graan makes 13 changes to his side. Mike Haley keeps his place at full-back with Darren Sweetnam returning from an injury sustained on international duty last month to start on the right wing with Alex Wootton on the opposite flank. Sammy Arnold keeps his place at outside centre and partners Taute in midfield with Alby Mathewson and JJ Hanrahan in the half-backs.
Jeremy Loughman, Kevin O’Byrne and Stephen Archer pack down in the front row as Jean Kleyn returns from injury to partner Darren O’Shea in the engine room. Conor Oliver makes his first start of the campaign having missed the early stages of the season through injury and is joined in the back row by Fineen Wycherley and Arno Botha.
Ulster club captain Rory Best said: “Munster are a quality outfit and they are going to be a test for us. There has to be a bit of a fear factor – if you don’t turn up Munster have more than enough fire-power to turn you over. We had a fairly torrid time against them at the start of the season.
“Overall, I think we’re in a good place and we’re starting to give supporters something to cheer about. The atmosphere for the Scarlets game was brilliant and we’re all looking forward to getting back out there on Friday night. Obviously, there’s going to a be a big crowd at the game and we’ll be doing everything we can to ensure they go home happy.”
Munster scrum-half Alby Mathewson said: “We had a really good day in Thomond Park when everything went well [when beating Ulster in September].
“They’ve improved a lot since then with two good wins in the Champions Cup over the last couple of weeks against Scarlets who are a quality team.
“They have good players across the board and play an attacking brand. I remember Dwayne Peel from my time at Bristol and he is a very good attacking coach. It’s going to be a lot tougher up there.”
Key battle: John Cooney v JJ Hanrahan
Although Cooney will be wearing nine and Hanrahan ten when the teams run out on Friday night, with rain forecast in Belfast on Friday, the match could come down to the accuracy of the goalkicking.
Cooney has been in impeccable form from the tee this season, with an 83.33 percent success rate, and has not missed in six attempts in the Guinness PRO14.
In contrast Hanrahan has struggled with the boot. His success rate is at 60 percent in the Guinness PRO14, and he has missed his last three attempts. However, in his last appearance in a Munster shirt, he was 100 percent off the tee, scoring 20 points in a man-of-the-match display in his side’s home Champions Cup win over Castres two weeks ago.
Key fact: The Kingspan Stadium is a fortress for Ulster – they have lost only once in Belfast since February: 22-15 to Connacht in round six of the Guinness PRO14.
Did you know? Ulster have won just one of their last seven fixtures against fellow Irish provinces: 24-17 over Munster at the Kingspan Stadium on New Year’s Day 2018.
Ulster: Louis Ludik, Henry Speight, Will Addison, Stuart McCloskey, Robert Baloucoune, Billy Burns, John Cooney, Eric O’Sullivan, Rob Herring (c), Marty Moore, Ian Nagle, Kieran Treadwell, Sean Reidy, Jordi Murphy, Marcell Coetzee
Replacements: Rory Best, Kyle McCall, Ross Kane, Clive Ross, Nick Timoney, David Shanahan, Johnny McPhillips, James Hume
Munster: Mike Haley, Darren Sweetnam, Sammy Arnold, Jaco Taute (c), Alex Wootton, JJ Hanrahan, Alby Mathewson, Jeremy Loughman, Kevin O’Byrne, Stephen Archer, Jean Kleyn, Darren O’Shea, Fineen Wycherley, Conor Oliver, Arno Botha
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Dave Kilcoyne, Ciaran Parker, Gavin Coombes, Tommy O’Donnell, Neil Cronin, Bill Johnston, Shane Daly
TV: Live on Premier Sports 1 and eir sport 1 & 2
Referee: Sean Gallagher (IRFU)
Assistant referees: Nigel Correll and Leo Colgan (both IRFU)
TMO: Brian MacNiece (IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Eddie Walsh (IRFU)
Ulster claimed Guinness PRO14 bragging rights and moved back to second in Conference B with a bruising victory over rivals Munster at the Kingspan Stadium.
Munster had prevailed with a record 64-7 win when the two last met but this was to be no repeat, Rob Herring scoring the only try of the first half.
The visitors powered back but Robert Baloucoune crossed after the break before David Shanahan wrapped up the win with just three minutes left on the clock.
Defeat keeps Munster second in Conference A after a tough encounter, with the festive feast of derby clashes only just beginning in the Guinness PRO14.
Baloucoune saw yellow for a dangerous tackle from the kick-off but the hosts held firm until JJ Hanrahan kicked a simple penalty from in front of the posts.
Ulster came back as both sides took stock of the conditions but were unable were to find the breakthrough, a busy Munster defence keeping them honest as the first half developed.
Finally Ulster did get their breakthrough and it came down the left hand side, a dominant drive from the pack giving Herring a chance to break off the side to power over for the game’s first score.
Billy Burns added the extra two points with five minutes until the break and that brought an end to the first-half scoring, with Ulster leading 7-3 in their bid to climb Conference B.
But that ambition was somewhat dented when their lead was reduced to one point, Hanrahan making no mistake with a penalty following a high tackle.
That prompted the hosts to bring Rory Best on to the field to great acclaim – and it wasn’t long before he played a part in Ulster’s second try.
The front row’s top offload saw James Hume make a break, with Shanahan offering vital support in the 22.
His pass then found Baloucoune who had the simple task of crashing over, with Burns’ conversion extending the lead to eight points.
With Ulster losing just once at the Kingspan since February, Munster needed to produce something special to snatch the points against a side that had won five from six in all competitions.
Bill Johnston’s penalty 15 minutes from time aided that cause to make it 14-9, with a grandstand finale in store at the Kingspan.
And it was Ulster who wrapped up the win four minutes from time, another superb offload from Best allowing Shanahan to crash over for the third and final try of the game.
Munster had the muted final say though, Johnston’s penalty giving them a potentially-vital losing bonus point.