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.