(Munster train ahead of their game with Ulster - INPHO/Billy Stickland)
“Should we trust him, your Neutralness?”
“All I know is my gut says maybe.”
SUNDAY WILL BE a fantastic day to be a neutral, and as a Leinster fan, this scribe finds himself in exactly that position. Hopefully by Sunday lunchtime Leinster’s passage will have been secured and I’ll be watching in relaxed pose from my chaise longue as my manservant peels me grapes and drops them into my mouth.
After yet another low-try dogfight between Leinster and Munster, there’s a feeling that the familiarity between those two great rivals is becoming overbearing on the matches themselves: neither of this season’s bouts were particularly brilliant. In contrast, there’s a real freshness to this game.
It’s a bit of an indictment of the Pro12, but these two rivals don’t play each other properly very often. When they meet, it’s typically with shadow teams and predictable outcomes. It lends a sense of the unknown to the occasion – after all, Munster v Ulster should be every bit as intense a rivalry as Munster v Leinster – here’s its chance to stake a claim. Bring it on I say, and fetch me my mint julip post haste, manservant!
Egg Chaser has bullishly presented his case for the team on the upward curve, but I’m just not feeling it. Here’s why I reckon Munster will win:
(Conor Murray looks set to return for Munster – INPHO/Billy Stickland)
Not unlike John Snow’s swing-ometer, this thing has taken a massive turn on its axis in the last week. Not long ago, things were looking grim down south with a raft of injuries to key men. Munster without Paul O’Connell (not to mention Wally, Ryan and Murray) are a significantly diminished beast, but he appears set to start, as are Murray and Ryan. Wally could make an appearance from the bench. Meanwhile, up North, the Protestant equivalent of rosary beads are out for their all-important flanker Stephen Ferris. We have a sneaky feeling he might just play through the pain barrier, but will he be able to make the shuddering hits and inspiring carries his team needs? Without him, it’s almost impossible to see Ulster winning.
Away Day Blues
Ulster were rightly acclaimed for their bullish performance in securing a losing bonus point in Clermont, but the result was still another L in the away game column. Ulster are dynamite in Ravenhill, but have precisely two significant away wins in recent (and not so recent) history, and both were against fairly average Oooooooooohh Bath outfits. They have yet to show that when it comes down to the sharp end of tough away games, they have the belief, experience and discipline to win. The away game at Leicester was a missed opportunity, and they could have beaten Clermont, but didn’t seem to have the ice-veins. Contrast with Munster who, even when second best, have the ability to come up with winning scores late in the day (sometimes after as many as 41,000 phases).
Shades of 2006?
The hypnosis treatment to wipe the memory of Black Sunday didn’t entirely work, and this game reminds me a little of the build-up to that match. Munster were then the better side, but in the lead-up were slightly sniffily treated as the media raved over a more glamorous Leinster team who had just achieved an incredible and unlikely, if uncontrolled, win over Toulouse. They were crushed by a Munster team who had more pedigree and experience when it mattered.
This Munster vintage isn’t of the same calibre, but they will be mentally in the right place on the day. Ulster appear to be incredibly hungry for this game, but can they control their passion? Leinster whipped themselves into a frenzy on Black Sunday, but emerged from the tunnel oddly flat. This is the biggest game yet for this Ulster team – they have to show they can manage the occasion. It could be one of those days when Munster put the squeeze on and Ulster never get going.
Nobody – nobody! – beats Munster six times in a row
Peddling the Munster will win because they’ll win argument wouldn’t be our style, and as Egg rightly argued, Munster won’t win simply because they’re Munster. But in many ways, the Leinster result was the perfect preparation. If it was the same personnel running out again, I wouldn’t be confident, but it’s primed for Paulie and ROG to give the troops a right kick up the you-know-what and take the situation by the scruff of the neck. Axel Foley will have had the cattle prod out in training this week, and a wounded Munster side is a dangerous beast. Ulster will have felt good about their six-try smashing of travel-sick Aironi, but will they be able to bring the intensity up to Munster-in-Thomond level?
Romain Poite and the scrum
(Romain Poite will take charge of the match – Mike Egerton/EMPICS Sport)
Eh? After last week? Well, yes. It looks close to call on paper, but I have Botha and du Preez marginally ahead of Afoa and Court. Poite generally allows the front rows to go at it any which way and gets the straight arm up for whoever’s marching forward, and I’ve a suspicion Botha may be the canniest scrummager on the pitch. Afoa is no slouch in the scrum, but Court looks to be the weakest link here. This could just swing a tight match the home team’s way.
This neutral just can’t wait for sunday lunchtime. If I don’t survive, tell Ms Ovale, “Hello.”