SOMETHING has to give on Saturday evening at the Kingspan Stadium in Belfast when Pro14 Conference A leaders Ulster and Conference B leaders Munster both put their 100% records on the line.
For Johann van Graan’s Munster, it should be their toughest league game of the campaign to date, but in many ways, the game is much more important for Dan McFarland’s Ulster side.
Munster are 12 points clear of second-placed Connacht in Conference B, with both teams having played seven games, so they have a bit of leeway in terms of securing the top spot. Given that the campaign is getting culled at the Round 16 stage, with a Grand Final taking place on March 27 to facilitate the arrival of the Rainbow Cup in April, as South Africa’s four Super Rugby sides, the Bulls, the Lions, the Sharks and the Stormers, officially move to the Pro14, then Munster’s twelve-point advantage looks quite sizeable right now.
Connacht will have to opportunity to eat into Munster’s lead on January 9 at the Sportsgrounds, when Connacht and Munster face-off, but conversely, a Munster win there and top spot in Conference B, and a place in the final, will be virtually assured.
The bottom line is that Munster are strong favourites to win the conference now, whereas Ulster cannot say the same. Leinster are breathing down their necks, just seven points back, and with two games in hand, so they really have to be winning on Saturday and hope that Leinster slip up somewhere.
We can probably expect more match cancellations in the coming weeks, due to positive Covid cases, so do not be surprised if one, or more teams struggle to get their sixteen fixtures fulfilled by March 20. At the time of writing, for instance, Leinster had only played seven games, while positive tests were being discovered within their squad.
If Leinster were forced to miss another round or two then it is highly unlikely they would get to finish their campaign in time, and therefore they might find themselves in a situation where Ulster pip them to top spot merely due to the fact that they got to play more games. It would certainly be interesting to see how the league would handle such a scenario.
With a situation like the one described above a realistic prospect, it is imperative for Ulster that they garner as many points as possible right now, which is why this fixture is much more important for them than it is for Munster. Potentially a win on Saturday could be enough to propel them to the final in March.
While Europe has not gone well for Ulster, where they have lost both of their opening Heineken Champions Cup ties, they have been extremely consistent in the league, with them securing an impressive 19-32 away to Connacht on St Stephen’s Day.
This match is Ulster’s first since the announcement that their talismanic No. 8 Marcell Coetzee is leaving the club a year early, in the summer, to ply his trade with the Bulls in his native South Africa.
Since arriving in Belfast Coetzee has been instrumental to everything good about Ulster, as he has generally been the main man in a lightweight pack. Whether he lines out against Munster or not, this is an obvious area where Munster will target Ulster. In Munster’s nine wins this season to date their scrum and lineout have been significant weapons, and Munster would also be confident of winning the collisions against Ulster up front, even if a few of their Irish internationals sit it out.
Full back Michael Lowry has been instrumental in Ulster’s good form this season, and only for his diminutive stature, he might be looked at by Irish coach Andy Farrell. You would imagine that Munster will look to target a 5' 7" full-back, so expect to see the Munster half-backs sending a few box kicks and garryowens in his direction.
In reality, the Connacht game next week is a more important game in Munster’s season, as a win there virtually wraps up the Conference. A cynical person might even suggest that Munster would not mind losing to Leinster’s main Conference rivals right now, as a final against Ulster would appear to be a more tempting prospect than a final against Leinster, especially for a side who has not won any silverware in a decade.