Ulster are hoping to reclaim their place in the top four of the RaboDirect PRO12 as they begin the New Year by hosting table toppers and provincial rivals Munster at Ravenhill.
RABODIRECT PRO12: Friday, January 3
ULSTER (5th) v MUNSTER (1st), Ravenhill, 7.05pm (live BBC 2 Northern Ireland/RTÉ Two)
Team News: Chris Henry and Iain Henderson have recovered from injury to be named in the Ulster team to take on the league leaders at Ravenhill.
Henry and Henderson are two of six changes to the team that lost to Leinster at the RDS for Ulster’s second interprovincial match in six days.
Ruan Pienaar starts at scrum half, Jared Payne is selected at full-back, with Tom Court named at loosehead prop and John Afoa returning on the tighthead side of the scrum.
Reigning RaboDirect PRO12 Players’ Player of the Year Nick Williams has recovered from the calf injury that he picked up in November and is named as a replacement.
The province’s regular captain Johann Muller is unavailable for selection having sustained a leg injury in training this week.
The defeat to Leinster ended Ulster’s five-match winning run in all competitions. Ulster have lost only once at Ravenhill in any competition since February, but will face a tough test against Munster who are currently seven points clear at the top of the PRO12.
Meanwhile, team captain Peter O’Mahony and influential lock Paul O’Connell have been named to start in a Munster team that includes 12 changes for this week’s interprovincial encounter in Belfast.
Donncha O’Callaghan, James Coughlan and Ronan O’Mahony are the starting trio that survive from last weekend’s home victory over Connacht.
Damien Varley returns from his bout of illness to start in the front row with props David Kilcoyne and Stephen Archer.
Tommy O’Donnell joins O’Connell and skipper O’Mahony in returning to the pack, while there is a change in half-backs this week with Cathal Sheridan and Ian Keatley starting together.
The back-line sees Felix Jones at full-back with Andrew Conway, Ivan Dineen and Casey Laualala joining Ronan O’Mahony to complete the backs division.
Keith Earls misses out this week with a bruised shoulder and there is no place in the squad for JJ Hanrahan due to a tight groin, but both players are expected to train next week.
Prop James Cronin received the all-clear from the scan of his lower back but will not be involved this weekend.
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 (capt), Chris Henry, Roger Wilson.
Replacements: Niall Annett, Callum Black, Declan Fitzpatrick, Lewis Stevenson, Nick Williams, Sean Doyle, Paul Marshall, Michael Allen.
MUNSTER: Felix Jones; Andrew Conway, Casey Laulala, Ivan Dineen, Ronan O’Mahony; Ian Keatley, Cathal Sheridan; David Kilcoyne, Damien Varley, Stephen Archer, Donncha O’Callaghan, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony (capt), Tommy O’Donnell, James Coughlan.
Replacements: Duncan Casey, John Ryan, BJ Botha, David Foley, CJ Stander, Duncan Williams, Johnny Holland, Johne Murphy.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland)
Assistant Referees: Dudley Phillips, Nigel Correll (both Ireland)
Television Match Official: Brian MacNeice (Ireland)
Match Odds (Paddy Power): Ulster to win: 4/11; Draw: 18/1; Munster to win: 9/4
Pre-Match Quotes: Chris Henry (Ulster) – “I am busting to get back, it is a lonely place being injured. You are doing your own weights sessions, you’re missing team sessions and meetings but this week has been really exciting getting back into the mix with everyone.
“We hardly touched the ball going forward in the first half (against Leinster) and that’s not what this Ulster team is about, we take a lot of pride in our attack and the style of rugby we play.
“Leinster didn’t give us the ball and we couldn’t keep the ball which was very frustrating. On the plus side, we have a chance to put things right this week.
“It’s a big game, the interpros always bring that extra edge to a match and we just need to put last week to bed and play to our full potential this week.
“Every game against a side like Munster is going to be physical, but you have got to be dominant at the set piece, scrum and lineout, we have focused massively on that this week.
“We struggled against Leinster with the speed of our own ruck ball, when we actually had it, and struggled to slow up their ball.
“Munster have the ability to string a lot of phases together so I would say it will be a big bruising encounter. This week is really a ‘must win’ game for us and the pressure is on, but hopefully we will be able to deliver.”
Cathal Sheridan (Munster) – “I think it (the recent European success in Perpignan) definitely gives you more confidence, you just have that bit of belief in yourself that if you go to a place like Perpignan and deal with what they have to throw at you.
“But, at the same time, you can’t be looking back to last week. You have to think this is a different team, different set-up, different week, so you have to prepare as if you didn’t do anything last week and you are not going to be doing anything next week. You have to be ready for this week coming.
“You always know what to expect when you go up to Ulster. Any of the senior lads who have been there year in and year out will tell you. You are never going to get an easy game up there.
“I know it is a cliché, but it’s the fact of the matter. It could be in the Heineken Cup or the Rabo, but at the end of the day it is an interpro game between Munster and Ulster and they are always something to be savoured.”
Top Scorers – 2013/14 RaboDirect PRO12: Ulster – Points: Paddy Jackson 82; Tries: Michael Allen 3; Munster – Points: JJ Hanrahan 101; Tries: James Cronin, JJ Hanrahan 3 each
RECENT LEAGUE MEETINGS:
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
Saturday, December 29, 2012 – Munster 24 Ulster 10, Thomond Park
– Ulster’s 19-6 reversal against Leinster in Dublin last Saturday ended their five-match winning run in all competitions
– The Ulstermen have lost only once at Ravenhill in any competition since February: 13-12 to Glasgow Warriors in the RaboDirect PRO12 on September 13
– Ulster won all three home games against fellow Irish provinces last season
– Munster continue to top the PRO12 table, having suffered just one defeat in their last twelve matches in the competition: 29-19 in Treviso on September 20
– The Munstermen have won their last four away games in all tournaments since their 29-23 loss in Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup on October 12
– Munster have been defeated just once in their last six contests with fellow Irish provinces: 22-16 at home to Leinster in April
– The last five encounters between the two sides have all been won by the home team on the day, while Munster’s only victory at Ravenhill since 2007 was 16-6 on October 29, 2010