When Munster travelled north to play Ulster in September, both provinces were residing in the top three of the RaboDirect PRO12. That is still the case for this second rubber, but the Ulstermen have now carved out a nine-point lead at the top of the table.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Saturday, December 29
MUNSTER (3rd) v ULSTER (1st), Thomond Park, 5.30pm (live RTÉ Two/BBC 2 Northern Ireland)
Team News: Ireland internationals Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Simon Zebo and Ronan O’Gara, who missed last weekend’s trip to Galway, have all been included in the Munster squad for the second of their festive interprovincial derby fixtures.
The returning trio of O’Mahony, Murray and Zebo have been picked to start against league leaders Ulster at Thomond Park on Saturday evening.
Ian Keatley, who landed some vital kicks against Connacht, retains the number 10 jersey with O’Gara providing back-up from a replacements bench which includes the fit-again Felix Jones.
Keatley and Murray will combine at half-back with another old hand, Peter Stringer, selected on the bench after helping Munster run out 16-12 winners over Connacht last weekend.
Full-back Denis Hurley will make his 100th competitive appearance for Munster – the 25th player to achieve the feat – in a back-line that sees centres Casey Laulala and James Downey paired together for the third successive game.
Damien Varley returns from injury to start at hooker, while second rows Donncha O’Callaghan and Billy Holland are the only combination up front to remain intact from a week ago.
Match tickets are available to buy online on www.munsterrugby.ie, and from the Munster Rugby ticket offices in Musgrave Park and Thomond Park (open today 10am-4pm). You can also call the ticket office in Thomond Park on 061-421103.
Tickets will also be on sale from the mobile ticket office at Hassett’s Cross tomorrow from 10am. The West Stand ticket booth will also be open on matchday from 3.30pm.
Meanwhile, head coach Mark Anscombe has made eleven changes to the starting line-up for Ulster’s RaboDirect PRO12 derby trip to Thomond Park to face Munster.
Only Craig Gilroy and Luke Marshall in the backs and forward duo Neil McComb and Robbie Diack have been retained from the team that beat Leinster 27-19 last Friday night.
Despite resting a number of players and having a large contingent involved in an Ireland training camp this week, Ulster are still able to field an all-Ireland qualified matchday squad.
Adam D’Arcy will make his first start of the season at full-back, linking up with speedy youngsters Chris Cochrane and Gilroy in the back-three.
Michael Allen will partner Luke Marshall in midfield, with Paul Marshall and Niall O’Connor forming a new half back combination.
In the forwards, Callum Black, Rob Herring and Adam Macklin make up an all-new front row, while Lewis Stevenson has returned from an eight-week injury lay-off to partner McComb in the engine room.
Roger Wilson will captain the team from number 8 and he will be ably assisted in the back row by Mike McComish and Diack.
There are opportunities on the bench for Hughes Insurance Academy players Ali Birch, Stuart Olding, Ricky Andrew and Alan O’Connor, who made his debut against his home province last weekend.
Hooker Niall Annett, prop Ricky Lutton and scrum half Michael Heaney provide further back-up. Experienced prop Tom Court, who put in a fine man-of-the-match performance against Leinster, is also part of the panel.
MUNSTER: Denis Hurley; Doug Howlett (capt), Casey Laulala, James Downey, Simon Zebo; Ian Keatley, Conor Murray; Wian du Preez, Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Donncha O’Callaghan, Billy Holland, Peter O’Mahony, Tommy O’Donnell, Paddy Butler.
Replacements: Mike Sherry, Marcus Horan, Stephen Archer, David O’Callaghan, James Coughlan, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara, Felix Jones.
ULSTER: Adam D’Arcy, Chris Cochrane, Michael Allen, Luke Marshall, Craig Gilroy; Niall O’Connor, Paul Marshall; Callum Black, Rob Herring, Adam Macklin, Lewis Stevenson, Neil McComb, Robbie Diack, Mike McComish, Roger Wilson (capt).
Replacements: Niall Annett, Ricky Lutton, Tom Court, Alan O’Connor, Ali Birch, Michael Heaney, Stuart Olding, Ricky Andrew.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Sean Gallagher (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Kevin Beggs (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Munster to win: 1/12; Draw: 30/1; Ulster to win: 6/1
Pre-Match Quotes: Rob Penney (Munster) – “These local derbies are fantastic. The Ulster guys are going really well, so it will be a real benchmark for us, given that they are so far in front and playing some really good, tough rugby.
“I saw them last Friday against Leinster. Brutal, big, robust, tough, physical, clinical. All the cliches and superlatives you’re probably used to hearing every week.
“The way they dismantled the Leinster scrum and put them under real pressure and at times at lineout maul drives, they brutalised Leinster.
“They’ll be very difficult. To come away having beaten Leinster will boost their confidence even more coming to Thomond Park, not that they needed a boost.
“Hopefully we can have lots of people there with their Christmas party hats on and give Ulster a hard time like they gave us a hard time up there.”
Niall O’Connor (Ulster) – “It’s a great opportunity for a few guys and some of the younger guys to put their hands up and that is all Mark (Anscombe) asks for is that guys keep pushing themselves and make it difficult for him to pick a team every week.
“Leinster was massive, we had talked about it all week how we had a poor record against them and that was something that the guys wanted to put right.
“A lot of guys had never beaten Leinster and coming of the back of the Northampton defeat, it was key to get the win and get back on track again. It was a great win and puts us back in a good place.
“(Thomond Park) is an intimidating and tough place to go but it is also very enjoyable and there is a great atmosphere, the Munster fans are very loud and passionate.
“It’s a good place to go and play rugby, rather than worry about the physiological fear of Thomond Park. it’s a matter of trying to soak up the atmosphere and put in a good performance.”
Top Scorers – 2012/13 RaboDirect PRO12: Munster – Points: Ian Keatley 79; Tries: Tommy O’Donnell 4; Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 63; Tries: Jared Payne, Nick Williams 5 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
Saturday, January 2, 2010 – Ulster 15 Munster 10, Ravenhill
Friday, October 29, 2010 – Ulster 6 Munster 16, Ravenhill
Saturday, January 1, 2011 – Munster 35 Ulster 10, Thomond Park
Friday, December 30, 2011 – Ulster 33 Munster 17, Ravenhill
Saturday, May 5, 2012 – Munster 36 Ulster 8, Thomond Park
Friday, September 14, 2012 – Ulster 20 Munster 19, Ravenhill
– Munster’s only defeat in their last five RaboDirect PRO12 fixtures was 13-6 to the Scarlets at Musgrave Park on November 25
– The Munstermen’s solitary loss at Thomond Park in this competition since October 2011 came at the hands of Leinster in March
– Ulster have now equalled Leinster’s best ever start to a PRO12 season with eleven straight victories, and have won all eight away games they have played in all competitions this season
– The Ulstermen have won all three games against fellow Irish provinces this season, but so far all those encounters have been at Ravenhill
– The last four meetings between these two sides in the RaboDirect PRO12 have all been won by the home side on the day
– Ulster have not won at Thomond Park in the league since 2009, although they did of course triumph there in last season’s Heineken Cup quarter-final