FRESH from the heroics against the Exeter Chiefs last weekend, Munster look to capitalise on the positive vibes gained from that victory when they visit URC rivals Ulster at the Kingspan Stadium on Friday evening as they look to ride the wave of this optimism for the remainder of the season.
In the last few seasons there have been multiple examples of Munster achieving big wins in important games only to lose badly soon after, thereby squandering that hard-earned momentum.
It would be easy to write this game off as insignificant in the grand scheme of things – ultimately Ulster and Munster are probably going to qualify for the URC quarter finals given they lie in second and fourth spots with just three matches remaining - but a poor finish to the league campaign would not only have the effect of scuppering any newly found confidence, but it would also seriously impact Munster’s finishing position, which would in turn impact on the prospect of winning the URC title come season’s end.
Munster have now officially entered the period of the season where every game has a cup final feel to it, given that every game is potentially season defining, so with that in mind we should expect Johann van Graan to field his strongest available side for every game.
Some of Munster’s players have done more of their share of the lifting this season.
It seems like Jack O’Donoghue, Fineen Wycherley, Chris Farrell, Stephen Archer and Niall Scannell, in particular, are rolled out time and time again.
If any players need a break it is this bunch, although you would suspect that van Graan will be tempted to roll them out once more on Friday, given the importance of this clash.
O’Donoghue is in the form of his life at present, and in the absence of the injured Gavin Coombes and Jack O’Sullivan it is probably best to just keep handing him the number eight shirt until they return to action.
Fineen Wycherley has become a key element of the Munster pack this season too, with him being responsible for calling the lineout.
The coaches might not want that responsibility being handed on for such a vital game, and for that reason alone he might be retained in the side.
With the URC hat on Munster only have three games left, before the play-offs at least, with a home tie against the Cardiff Blues being sandwiched between two extremely tough away fixtures against Ulster and Leinster.
With just seven points covering second to eight positions the last three games constitute a right lunge for the line to secure the top play-off berths. With that in mind, this trip to Belfast is extremely important to Munster’s finishing position, as they certainly do not want to be heading to the Aviva Stadium for their last league game on 21 May needing something to secure a quarter-final berth.
A big feature of this build up will centre around Ulster’s state of mind after their heartbreaking Champions Cup exit to Toulouse last week at the same venue.
They will be feeling that they should be looking forward to a home quarter-final tie against Munster on 6 May, but they could not see the game out against the current European champions, with late scores at the end of both legs proving fatal to their hopes.
You would expect Dan McFarland’s troops to have refocused quickly, however, and with all their eggs now firmly in the URC basket Munster can expect a stiff test on Friday evening.
The usual approach of a van Graan side in a big game away from home is to keep it tight, do not try anything too risky and trust the box kick to generate territory, but this approach is unlikely to reap dividends against Ulster.
The last thing you should do in Belfast is kick to their lightning quick back three. To kick long and often to the likes of Michael Lowry, Robert Baloucoune and Ethan McIlroy is asking for trouble as they are likely to run back at you, with interest.
Munster must not only front up physically, in what is likely to be an extremely attritional encounter, but they will have to back themselves and attack Ulster out wide.
Ultimately this is how Munster beat Exeter, with Simon Zebo’s sensational inside pass to Damian de Allende opening up the English side, and it is this type of rugby that Munster need to repeat if they are going to be successful in this crucial final stretch in their long season.