AFTER SENDING OUT most of the back-ups for last week’s seasonal inter-pros, both Rob Penney and Mark Anscombe have been able to put their best feet forward and name almost full-strength starting line-ups for tonight’s clash in Ravenhill.
With the Heineken Cup and Six Nations just around the corner, neither set of players will be holding anything back as they search for form and selection favour.
Here are the confrontations we’re looking forward to most.
Iain Henderson v Paul O’Connell
Perhaps Ulster’s most promising young talent has his work cut out tonight. O’Connell is a fine yard-stick for any second row to measure himself by, but Henderson will come into close contact with the Ireland captain cold as he returns from injury.
On paper, Ulster’s front row has the upper hand, so O’Connell will look to take control of the game in the tight exchanges and line-out while it will be intriguing to see how Henderson goes about disrupting his progress.
Chris Henry v Tommy O’Donnell
Like Henderson, Henry will come into this contest a little rusty, but Tommy O’Donnell will hardly be at full tilt either.
With Sean O’Brien out injured, tonight’s number seven duel holds even more significance than usual. Henry will hope to hit the ground running and that his experience on the deck will hold sway when Joe Schmidt and John Plumtree sit down to pick the team to face Scotland.
As for tonight’s game, well, it should go without saying that the breakdown is central to the fortunes of both these quick-ball-craving, high-tempo sides and the influence of these opensides over the ball will be crucial to the outcome.
Paddy Jackson v Ian Keatley
The prize may not be as tangible for these two 10s, but after a month of non-stop plaudits for JJ Hanrahan, even mild-mannered Ian Keatley must be grinding his teeth slightly as he waits to show what he can do again.
With Hanrahan rested, Keatley won’t have to look over his shoulder quite so often in the second half tonight and winning this duel would go a long way to giving him an unlikely shot at a cap in the spring.
Jackson was Joe Schmidt’s second choice out-half in November, but with four weeks of Italian opposition followed by a meek Ulster performance in Dublin, there has not been much to gain for the 21-year-old last month.
With a national audience again watching tonight, Jackson’s job is to solidify rather than reinvent his game with consistent decision-making and more accurate goal-kicking.
Ulster: Jared Payne, Andrew Trimble, Darren Cave, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy, Paddy Jackson, Ruan Pienaar: Tom Court, Rob Herring, John Afoa, Iain Henderson, Dan Tuohy, Robbie Diack (Captain), Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Nick Williams, Sean Doyle, Paul Marshall, Mike Allen.
Munster: Felix Jones; Andrew Conway, Casey Laulala, Ivan Dineen, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Cathal Sheridan; Dave Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, Stephen Archer; Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell; Peter O’Mahony (Captain), Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Duncan Casey, John Ryan, BJ Botha, Dave Foley, CJ Stander, Duncan Williams, Johnny Holland, Johne Murphy.