Odds in Leinster’s favour – but that suits Munster
Rob Penney’s men arrive at the Aviva for Rabo Pro12 showdown in much better form than last season
Luke Fitzgerald of Leinster and Munster’s Keith Earls engage in aerial combat during the RaboDirect Pro12 game at Thomond Park in March 2012. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
First v second, the champions against their fiercest rivals in the professional era, each with three League titles between them (not to mention five European Cups), 27 internationals on the pitch come kick-off, the biggest crowd in League history confirming this fixture’s status as one of the biggest domestic squabbles in the world, great stadium, great pitch, best referee in the country and all conducted in the fall-out of Ireland’s second championship in 29 years.
This Leinster-Munster rivalry really is dying a death.
The statistics, as well as the odds, appear stacked in Leinster’s favour. Leinster are on one of their customary rolls as the campaign enters the business end of the season, having won their last nine matches in all tournaments and picked up 28 points out of a possible 30 in their last six league games.
Although the reigning champions lost on their last appearance at the Aviva, against Northampton in December, and also lost there 12 months previously against Clermont, they have won all 12 league games they have played at the venue.
Last four visits
This includes Munster’s last four visits here, dating back to their Heineken Cup semi-final victory at the old Lansdowne Road in 2006.
Admittedly Munster’s form is much better this season than last, and they arrive with six wins in their last seven games.
They also did end a losing run of four games against Leinster at Thomond Park last October, but they haven’t completed a double over their fiercest rivals since the 2008-09 season, courtesy of their last win in Dublin by 18-0 at the RDS.
Leinster remain six-point favourites since the start of the week, yet yesterday’s team sheets confirmed they will not be at full tilt in the frontrow.
Three of their quartet of Six Nations props – Cian Healy, Jack McGrath and Marty Moore – have all been ruled out, along with Tadgh Furlong.
Hence their frontrow has a patchwork look, with Michael Bent, converted from tighthead to loosehead, packing down alongside Richardt Strauss (preferred to Seán Cronin) and Mike Ross, who can expect a long stint at the coalface.
Their reserve props are Jack O’Connell and Ed Byrne, the huge and hugely promising, if uncapped, 20-year-old Clongowes product plucked from the Leinster academy/A side.
While 26-year-old Alan Cotter steps on to the Munster bench with just one appearance as a replacement to date in place of the injured Stephen Archer, James Cronin and Duncan Casey have impressed this season and opportunity would appear to knock for BJ Botha and the Munster scrum.
With one eye on next week’s daunting trek to Toulon and their Stade Félix Mayol cauldron, Matt O’Connor has also not risked Rhys Ruddock and Dave Kearney either but still can field a back three of Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald, with Zane Kirchener on the bench alongside side Jimmy Gopperth and Isaac Boss. Jordi Murphy has also been held in reserve.
Even so, nine of Leinster’s starting line-up (and three of their bench) contributed to Ireland’s Six Nations success, while the other six starters are also Irish internationals. Ultimately too, Leinster have five internationals on their bench to Munster’s one.
Rob Penney also re-instates title-winners Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray, and Tommy O’Donnell, amongst 10 changes.
Interestingly, they have renewed their attempt to convert Denis Hurley’s strength and physicality at inside centre ahead of James Downey.
Dave Foley, now fulfilling the potential the Munster hierarchy identified years ago, is preferred to Donnacha O’Callaghan, while Simon Zebo and Keith Earls provide real cutting edge on the wings, and they and others in the Munster ranks won’t lack for motivation.
The day’s rain is forecast to pass off before kick-off, leaving a slick surface, while such has been the familiarity between the sides that, as is the way of modern car crash rugby, line breaks, much less try chances may be at a premium.
Leinster are entitled to start as favourites but history has shown us form often counts for little in this fixture.
Most likely this game will be decided at the breakdown, the bedrock of Ireland’s title success, and as their 40-7 win away to Northampton last December highlighted, Leinster emerged from that extended autumnal stay with Ireland in prime nick.
Then,they were re-addressing the disappointment of missing out on victory against the All Blacks. This time they are coming off a high, and five of their starting pack didn’t feature in the Six Nations.
Munster are closer to full strength, have line-out options aplenty and if Botha and co can muscle some yardage and points, the visitors look to have a better chance than the six-point handicap indicates.
Last six meetings : (2010-11, Grand Final – Munster 19 Leinster 9; (2011-12) Leinster 24 Munster 19; Munster 9 Leinster 18; (2012-13) Leinster 30 Munster 21; Munster 16 Leinster 22; (2013-14) Munster 19 Leinster 15. Betting (Paddy Powers): 4/11 Leinster, 20/1 Draw, 21/10 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster +6pts) 10/11 Leinster, 18/1 Draw, 10/11 Munster.
Forecast : Munster to win.