Ulster Rugby vs Munster

Following tumultuous weeks on and particularly off the pitch during the opening rounds of the European campaigns it’s very much back to Guinness PRO12 business over the next 24 hours. RIVALS IN A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

Ulster fans who, last Saturday, so tunefully and emotionally joined in the farewell salute to one of the game’s finest servants and genuine heroes, must harness the same passion on this very special Kingspan Stadium evening. The arrival of Munster at any point in the season is always something which gets the juices going; the men in red have for over a century offered a very unique Inter-Provincial challenge. Nowadays the matches with Ulster are played within the competitive structures of League and Cup, but they are always rumbustious and highly-charged. This evening the hosts will acknowledge the very best virtues of Munster Rugby: its fervour, its resilience, its implacable rejection of anything less than total commitment to the cause of team and community, and its relish to vanquish all opposition with complete mental and physical application and imagination. Anthony Foley, of Munchins, Shannon, Munster and Ireland represented all those qualities, and as Head Coach of his beloved Province he was not just respected, he was held in an affection few in any walk of life can expect. The tangible and audible evocation of this will be demonstrated in full measure at Kingspan, and hopefully his wife and sons will get some comfort from the swell of pride the game and people beyond it had in Axel, a true legend. His team did him immense credit last Saturday when, after deciding to go ahead with its Champions Cup tie with Glasgow Warriors, it thrilled a capacity Thomond Park crowd already fuelled by an overwhelming emotion of loss. Those players in the Munster family are part of Foley’s giant legacy, but he would want them to do what he wanted of them each and every day: their best. And so Ulster can expect a formidable opposition this evening, and as thoughts delicately turn to the matter in hand, a win in the PRO12, the supporters of both teams who’ll fill Kingspan to the rafters can expect a rousing if emotionally embroidered encounter between a team which has set the pace in the league since September and one which stumbled early on but is now very much in the title-chasing fray. Indeed, it’s a remarkable thought that by Saturday evening any one of the top six teams in the PRO12 could sit atop the pile so congested is the field. Ulster – if it wins - can, though, approach its final game before the Autumn International break in

Edinburgh next Friday assured of an entrenched Top Four spot. Munster will have very different thoughts and skipper Peter O’Mahony – who can never have imagined been thrust back into action this month after a long injury lay-off in such surreal and tragic circumstances - will want to once more summon up the will in his panel which saw Glasgow so spectacularly put to the sword in Limerick last week. A win for the visitors in Belfast could – if Cardiff and Glasgow were to falter at home to the Scarlets and Treviso respectively tonight – launch the men in red to pole position in the table. Coaches Les Kiss, Neil Doak, Allen Clarke, Joe Barakat – on the eve of his departure from Ulster to hopefully great things ‘down under’ – with Niall Malone, will have examined the visitors’ strengths and skillsets in minute detail, they will have factored in all the traditional Munster qualities and the extraordinary hinterland to this game. The Champions Cup win over Exeter in Belfast last Saturday was thrilling in its climax but players, management and fans know that a repeat staccato display will not forever deliver results and vital league points. Moments of brilliance and carnage from Charles Piutau stood out too brightly as rare beacons of invention, and the handling errors in difficult conditions were compounded – less forgivably – by the concession of penalties in the wrong areas of the pitch. Only Paddy Jackson’s super drop goal prevented Gareth Steenson and his impeccable boot leaving his former home with a victory for the Chiefs. Kiwi out-half Tyler Bleyendaal showed how punishing his place-kicking can be, and he also showed that as a playmaker he brings something to the current Munster team it had lacked in the early weeks of the season, a real attacking spark so reminiscent of the glory days. Munster, with CJ Stander, O’Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Tommy O’Donnell, Dave Kilcoyne, James Cronin, Conor Murray and Simon Zebo – to name but a few shrewd, experienced and talented players – will exploit any such spendthrift offences in the ruck or maul, and Ulster will have watched a replay of the Exeter game through gritted teeth. It will be a match day panel determined to sweep away the negatives in the performances against Connacht and Bordeaux-Begles in defeat, and perhaps more significantly against the Chiefs in dramatic but unconvincing victory.




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