Leinster have more points to make as they tackle Munster
Warren Gatland will be in attendance as local pride is on the line in Thomond
Munster's Paul O'Connell tackled by Matt Hopper of Harlequins. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
It’s back, the rivalry that has defined Irish rugby in the professional era more than any other, and last weekend’s European wins in London, especially Munster’s away to Harlequins, has added an extra frisson of anticipation.
If Munster had been of a mind to rest up after last week’s exertions, local pride decrees that they daren’t roll over and have their tummies tickled by their auld enemies.
The league points certainly are more meaningful for a Leinster side keen to atone for three losing finals in this competition as well as defeat last time out at home to Ulster.
And yet all that stuff is almost secondary. This is Munster v Leinster, and so it is that both are intent on putting their best foot forward.
About the only stellar names missing are the respective outhalves. Ronan O’Gara is rested while Jonny Sexton’s foot injury has been given another week to recover, which must be acutely frustrating for him.
Glimpse into the future
This affords a glimpse into the future, with Ian Keatley called up for Munster against the more established Ian Madigan, not so much in form as on fire.
Up front for Munster, Donncha O’Callaghan partners Paul O’Connell while Damien Varley and Stephen Archer start ahead of Mike Sherry and BJ Botha respectively.
The game also marks Brian O’Driscoll’s return in place of Fergus McFadden, who picked up a slight calf strain against Wasps and, similarly, up front Joe Schmidt promotes Seán Cronin, Quinn Roux and Shane Jennings.
For the first time in six of these clashes since Thomond Park was rebuilt, there are still tickets available, with 22,000 sold as of yesterday, and just to add further spice to the mix, with up to nine or 10 candidates for some minor skirmish in Australia this summer in mind, Warren Gatland will be amongst those in attendance.
As ever, there are a host of sub-plots, with the well-being of the last two Lions’ captains uppermost amongst them, along with the backrow collision, where it will be fascinating to see how the rapidly emerging Tommy O’Donnell goes against the streetwise Jennings. Ditto the young props Dave Kilcoyne and Archer against the resident Ireland props.
Meetings between these two have spoiled us royally since, sparked by the first of the Heineken Cup semi-final clashes seven seasons ago, they stopped wrapping the respective frontliners in cotton wool for fear of what they might do to each other.
There’s rarely been a dud since and the presence of Nigel Owens ought only to help although, alas, the forecast of persistent rain in this never-ending winter is a dampener.
Level of intensity
The level of intensity has rarely been far off those seismic Euro semi-finals in ’06 and ’09, the latter of which turned out to be quite a benchmark win for Leinster. That avenged two heavy league defeats that season as well as the ’06 semi-final beating in an era of pronounced Munster supremacy.
Since then, Munster have managed two wins at their Limerick fortress in the intervening four league clashes here, including the Grand Final of two seasons ago, but they remain their only two wins in the last 10 meetings, with Leinster winning the other eight.
True, a la most derbies, it comes down to the day. Nevertheless, Leinster have been the more consistent and potent force this season, with last week’s 48-point haul in High Wycombe a sign of them rediscovering their cutting edge.
On this exact weekend five years ago, seven days after winning a Heineken Cup quarter-final away to Gloucester, repeating the dose against an envious Leinster in the RDS proved too much as the latter won 21-12.
And however Munster approach this game, whether reverting to the wide-wide ball-in-hand game or the more direct game of last week, repeating that level of intensity with two days’ less of a turnaround is a big ask. Either way, it should be fun.