Celtic sides prepare for New Year battles
January 2, 2008
Rua Tipoki is set to return to Munster colours for this weekend's Magners League clash with Ulster at Thomond Park © Getty Images
After a busy festive period the Magners League programme continues into the New Year with another round of local derbies.
A full house at Thomond Park Stadium is assured for the final game of the round when table-topping Munster welcome Ulster on Saturday evening. The Ulstermen's last win in Munster was 20-17 in Cork on December 3, 2005, whilst their last triumph at Thomond Park was over 16 years ago, in the Interprovincial Championship on November 28, 1992.
Munster still top the Magners League table despite the fact that have won just one of their last three matches in the League: 18-16 at the Scarlets on November 28. The Munstermen have not been defeated by a fellow Irish team at Thomond Park since Leinster were the visitors in the Interprovincial Championship (15-19) on December 16, 1995.
Munster centre Rua Tipoki returns to action ahead of schedule following a knee injury and partners Lifiemi Mafi in midfield while Ronan O'Gara captains the side outside Peter Stringer at scrum-half.
With Frank Sheahan ruled out until the end of January after suffering a shoulder injury against Connacht, Munster recall Jerry Flannery to the side alongside John Hayes and Federico Puciarello in the front-row. There is no place in the squad for the likes of Paul O'Connell, Marcus Horan, Tomas O'Leary or Ian Dowling, but all are well and likely to be included in the squad for the trip to Wales next week.
"This is a busy time of year with a succession of very important, very intense games," explained Team Manager Shaun Payne. "So it's important we use or resources prudently not alone for our own sake but also keeping in mind the international players workload with the Six Nations just a little over four weeks away."
Ulster's three game winning run in the Magners League came to a halt at Ravenhill on Saturday with a 13-21 defeat to Leinster. Ulster's only away win since April 2007 was 30-13 at Connacht on November 23, 2007. Ulster have won their last two games against Munster, but both matches were played at Ravenhill. The Ulstermen's last win in Munster was 20-17 in Cork on December 3, 2005, whilst their last triumph at Thomond Park was 12-11 in the Interprovincial Championship on November 28, 1992.
Ulster captain Rory Best has been rested this week and in his absence Kieron Dawson will lead the team. And despite several injuries to his squad, coach Matt Williams remains optimistic. "If we go down to Munster, tackle our hearts out and stay within 10 points then we have every chance," said Williams. "We're playing the leaders but this is a really healthy competition. Everyone is alive and fighting, the top teams beat the bottom teams and the bottom teams beat the top teams, it's a very close and competitive league."
Clinton Schifcoske replaces Bryn Cunninham at fullback, while Dawson is excited about the prospect of a big performance against the leaders. "At the end of the day we are Ulster and we are going down to do a job against Munster and we have got to believe in ourselves," he said. "I'm looking forward to playing in a great stadium against a great side, running yourself into the ground and sitting in the changing rooms being able to look each other in the eye afterwards"
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