This weekend sees the first interpro of the season, as Ulster take on Munster at Ravenhill on Friday. If not quite ‘must see’, it’s the first game of the season that’s worth fixing your plans around. Both teams have made promising starts with two wins apiece, including wins on the road that were contrary to expectations – well, ours anyway. Both teams are, of course, under new coaching regimes and the early signs are positive in each case. And each is allowed to field a couple more internationals under the player management programme. So the phoney war is over and the real season is beginning. It’s hard to know just how much can be read in to the first two games, such is the array of missing arsenal, so we’re hoping Friday’s game will allow us to infer a bit more about the direction these sides are heading in.
Have Munster got themselves a pair of centres?
It looks like it. We’ve been a bit sniffy about Oooooooooooohhh James Downey in the past but while he may be a one-trick pony, it’s undeniably a good one. Trucking the ball up in the 12 channel is one thing, but it’s Downey’s ability to offload that’s giving Munster’s attack shape. What’s been particularly impressive is that the likes of Luke O’Dea are alive to the possibilities, and the whole Munster game plan looks joined-up for the first time in a long time. Outside Downey, Laulala’s quick footwork and direct running look a potent threat, and he’s also keen to keep the ball alive. He’s always been a quality footballer and, while his presence in the Munster 13 shirt might not be ideal for Keith Earls’ happiness index, he’s here and they might as well get the best of him.
Have Ulster got any fly-halves?
With Nick Williams starting very brightly and Robbie Diack reborn (apparently he’s ashamed of his performances last season and keen to make amends), our concerns over Ulster’s back row depth are receding. Worries at fly-half remain, however. Niall O’Connor has never really looked above Pro12 standard, so it’s a lot of pressure on young Paddy Jackson’s shoulders. Does he have it? His impact off the bench against the Ospreys has been enough to win him the starting jumper for the Munster game. His opposite number is Ian Keatley (and a certain centurion ligind awaits on the bench), who has had a reasonably bright start to the season. It’s a good opportunity to watch a couple of young Irish fly-halves who are looking for big seasons this year.
Donncha O’Callaghan – same-same but different?
Last season Stakhanov looked a fading force, devoid of power and no longer capable of the old manic energy that characterised his best days. But his performance against Edinburgh was his best in years. Heck, he even carried and – no, really – passed the ball. As a senior pro in a young-ish team, perhaps Penney is asking him to show more, well, seniority, and actually provide some leadership. Apparently it’s not enough just to be really great craic – who knew?! Can he roll back the years for one last hurrah, or was the Embra game a false dawn? Oh, and congrats on the nipper, Donners!
Ulster – Northern Saffers or expanding their game?
Ulster’s Saffa-inspired gameplan got them to a Heineken Cup last season, but to stand still is to go backwards in modern rugby, so we anticipate they’ll have to expand a bit on the template in order to stay at that level this year. They’ve a Kiwi coach now (albeit a gritty flanker type who was never known for his ball-playing ability) and Jared Payne brings a creative dimension to the full-back position that was missing last year. Their back three on Friday is Trimble-Payne-Allen and Darren Cave is back in the team at 13. It’s a backline with good strike threat, so let’s see if they’re prepared to play a few more phases and try and get the outside backs onto the ball and into space.
It’s a shame it’s not a week further out in the schedule, allowing the likes of O’Gara, Henry, Tuohy and O’Mahony the benefit of an additional week and a place in the First XV, but in any case, there’ll be plenty to chew over on Friday night at Ravers.