Home advantage makes Tony McGahan’s side the slight favourites but Ulster will travel to Limerick with no fear. This is an opportunity for the northern province to announce themselves at the top table of European rugby. The message from Ravenhill all season is that Ulster rugby is ready to rise to that level. On Sunday, they can take a major step.
Ulster’s Director of Rugby David Humphreys has preached the fact that he wants the province to be competing for the Heineken Cup every year. The decision to move Brian McLaughlin aside as coach next season in order to appoint New Zealander Mark Anscombe has been justified as necessary if Ulster are to become “a leading force in European rugby”. Elsewhere, plans to expand Ravenhill, as well as the impending returns of Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson have been impressive.
It’s clear that Ulster are a club on the rise. Over the past two seasons they have shown vast improvement under McLaughlin. The 2009/10 season saw a fairly disappointing 8th-placed Magners League finish, but the Heineken Cup performances were highly encouraging as Ulster narrowly missed out on qualifying from the group stages. Last season brought a Magners’ semi-final and Heineken Cup quarter-final. The natural progression would point to a win over Munster on Sunday.
Coming into this game, Ulster look the better-prepared side. They have warmed up with a hard-fought win in Treviso and a free-running hammering of Aironi. Crucially, McLaughlin has had a fully fit squad to choose from, with his front-liners integrating back in smoothly until Stephen Ferris’ ankle injury in the Aironi win. Even without ‘Fez’ Ulster managed six tries. Admittedly, the Italians are a poor team but it was still an encouraging performance for McLaughlin.
So how big a loss would Ferris be? It’s hard to stress just how important he is to the province. The 26-year-old may not be as vocal a leader, but the level of inspiration his bruising play gives to Ulster and their fans is as vital as Paul O’Connell’s contribution to Munster. Scans on Monday revealed worrying muscle and ligament damage to the ankle. Ferris missed last year’s quarter-final loss to Northampton, so will do everything in his power to be on the pitch this time around. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him play a part.
Munster’s preparation has been far from ideal. A narrow win away to Connacht was followed up by Saturday night’s 18-9 loss to Leinster. That result shows that Munster are beatable in Thomond Park. They won’t approach Sunday’s game with the reassurance of the aura of invincibility that home games brought in recent years. Paul O’Connell, Conor Murray and Donnacha Ryan missed the Leinster game but have returned to training this week. If those three are anywhere near fit, they will start. All three are crucial to Munster, highlighted by the lacklustre performance against Leinster.
One of the main concerns from last weekend’s loss was Munster’s inability to create try-scoring opportunities. Ulster are comfortably the PRO12’s highest try-scorers this season and will be confident of crossing the whitewash in Thomond Park. Tony McGahan’s men must create far more with their possession this weekend. Ronan O’Gara will need to be at his best on Sunday. If ever there was an occasion made for him then this is it.
Though they have possibly been deprived of their talisman in Ferris, this is an opportunity for Ulster. They carry the better form and confidence. It’s a chance for McLaughlin and his charges to prove that they belong in the top tier of European rugby. This would be the sort of win that Ulster might look back on as the start of a new era. Still, it’s never wise to bet against Munster in a situation like this, with their backs against the wall. It’s going to be a fascinating game.