Provincial matters are key today
RUGBY Leinster v Munster:AS HAS become the norm in recent times, a slow burning start to the rugby season should be set aflame by a renewal of Leinster-Munster hostilities.
To the backdrop of a near 50,000 full house under the Aviva lights, any television pictures of this latest match-up can, as ever, only shed a positive glow on Irish rugby and the Rabo Pro 12.
Admittedly, neither have come close to hitting their straps just yet. Whereas Munster are also in the teething stages of new era under new coaches, Leinster are in the throes of a typically trying first month to the season which has compounded by an horrendous injury list.
Leinster did confirm some timely good news yesterday with the anticipated announcement that Joe Schmidt has signed a one-year extension to his deal and will remain with the province until the end of the 2013/14 campaign.
But Rob Kearney, Gordon D’Arcy and Quinn Roux having shipped knocks last week and Cian Healy has joined them on the sidelines with a bruised bicep. At the last count Schmidt had 14 players on the casualty list, including another four internationals in Leo Cullen, Isaac Boss, Seán O’Brien and Luke Fitzgerald.
Each side took one on the chin last week and, unsurprisingly, Leinster have picked virtually an entirely different team from the one that was filleted by Connacht, while Munster have virtually changed their pack en bloc after they were blown away up front.
Leinster retain only three of their starting line-up and of those, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden have switched to fullback and inside centre, with only Heinke van der Meuwe retaining the same jersey from a week ago.
It is a measure of their resources that even without O’Brien, not to mention Dominic Ryan and Rhys Ruddock, they can field a Kevin McLaughlin-Shane Jennings-Jamie Heaslip trio, with the latter winning his 150th Leinster cap.
They always look a completely different proposition with Brian O’Driscoll back in their ranks, and just as comforting will be a first outing of the season for the Eoin Reddan-Jonathan Sexton partnership. However, it is a damning punishment for a costly missed tackle last week that sees Fionn Carr on the bench, with Isa Nacewa taking his place on the left wing and Ian Madigan pressed into duty at full-back.
Last week was also a bit of a reality check for Munster, who are in the middle of a three-game sequence on the road in which they will be underdogs in all three. Rob Penney has responded to their beating by retaining the same backline which, interestingly, means a continuation of the Casey Laulala-Keith Earls partnership.
Up front though, only Mike Sherry is retained at hooker. There still appears to be something of a void in the Leinster second-row which heretofore was filled by Nathan Hines and Brad Thorn, which the absence of Cullen only compounds. But it is as nothing compared to the absence of an enforcer type figure in the Munster pack whenever Paul O’Connell is hors de combat. Without him as a rallying point, they are just not the same, cohesive unit and, of course, their backrow resources have nothing like the same presence given the passing of a truly golden generation, which James Coughlan’s absence only compounds.
At any rate, with their running game and emphasis on width still in its infancy, Munster hardly look sufficiently grizzled and gnarled up front to do the kind of old-fashioned number they did on Leinster in the league decider two seasons ago.
While the standard of the fixture has been remarkably high given the familiarity between them, last season’s meetings weren’t exactly epics. Perhaps we’re becoming spoilt, but in any event the huge desire and physicality on both sides, coupled with that familiarity, has seen the clashes become more of an arm wrestle.
Although Leinster completed a deserving League double last season, their points were solely by dint of Jonathan Sexton’s boot, and they have failed to score a try in the sides’ last three meetings. That being said, they have also won seven of the last nine meetings beginning with that seismic Heineken Cup semi-final win in Croke Park four seasons ago, in which time Munster have only scored four tries.
It’s still remarkable to think that as recently as nine years ago this fixture didn’t sell–out Donnybrook (and the return was held in Musgrave Park). They’ve since outgrown both venues and also the RDS.
The European champions have won six games out of six at the rebuilt Lansdowne Road, and that includes a brace of hard-earned wins over Munster. Both teams would love a big performance and, ideally, a win, but all in all, Leinster look better equipped to obtain a timely pre-Euro fillip.
LEINSTER: I Madigan; A Conway, B O’Driscoll, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; D Browne, D Toner; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt). Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, J Hagan, T Denton, J Murphy, J Cooney, N Reid, F Carr.
MUNSTER: D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo; R O’Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; Donncha O’Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O’Callaghan, S Dougall, P O’Mahony. Replacements: D Varley, W du Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, J Downey.
Referee: Leighton Hodges(WRU).
League Head-to-Head: Played 19, Leinster 11 wins, Munster 8 wins.
Last five meetings: (2010-11) Leinster 13 Munster 9; Munster 24 Leinster 23; (league final) Munster 19 Leinster 9; (2011-12) Leinster 24 Munster 19; Munster 9 Leinster 18.
Leading try scorers: Leinster– Brendan Macken 3. Munster– Ian Keatley 2.
Leading points scorers: Leinster– Ian Madigan 39. Munster– Ian Keatley 54.
Betting(Paddy Power): 4/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 9/4 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster +7 pts) 10/11 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 10/11 Munster.
Forecast: Leinster to win.
Ticket sales were reaching the 45,000 mark yesterday and tickets are still on sale online from www.leinsterrugby.ie, the Leinster Rugby Store (Donnybrook), Spar (Donnybrook) as well as Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. There will be tickets on sale from 2.30pm today from the Clyde Court Hotel (formerly The Berkeley Court).