Leinster will pack a lot more punch
Brian O'Driscoll, seen here bursting between Munster's David Wallace and Paul Burke in May's Celtic Cup semi-final, returns to captain Leinster this afternoon as the provinces meet in the Celtic League at the RDS.
RUGBY: Brian O'Driscoll leads Leinster as captain for the first time this season and Denis Hickie takes a place on the bench for the first time since dislocating his fibula in October when Leinster take on provincial rivals Munster in a Celtic League clash at the RDS this afternoon.
There is no room in the squad for Robert Kearney, the teenage winger, who has been outstanding in Hickie's absence; but, for the first time, coach Michael Cheika has fielded a side that is more recognisably Leinster.
O'Driscoll, at number 12, and Gordon D'Arcy in the centre, with Shane Horgan on the right wing and Kieran Lewis holding his place on the other flank, is undoubtedly the strongest backline fielded this season.
With a record Celtic League attendance in excess of 13,000 expected, O'Driscoll's timing could not have been better. His 30-minute run-out last week at Ravenhill Road, his first competitive action since dislocating his shoulder in June, was clearly a success, and Leinster now face opposition they have not beaten since September 2004.
That day in Donnybrook, Gary Brown, James Norton and Brian O'Meara were the scorers in Leinster's 17-15 win. Today's Leinster side can be thankful for that two-point margin, as it broke an unhealthy run of defeats: the victory was Leinster's only one in the last seven meetings between the teams.
During the week, the fit-again Shane Horgan said Munster would be favourites, his reasoning being tradition. Horgan was not about to imply that the team he lines out with today are in any way inferior, despite the form guide. He, along with Cheika, believes that Leinster have picked up their game considerably since the last meeting back in October, when Munster won 33-9 in Musgrave Park.
"Embarrassing" is how Horgan remembers it, but with Ulster put away in Ravenhill Road and an extra pep in their step, Leinster have begun to find more consistency with their made-over game.
"It was a good win for us up in Ravenhill," Cheika said during the week. "I think everyone is aware of that. Now we've more business to take care of this week."
"For us it's more about consistency and the type of play we are creating, minimising our errors and making sure that we're challenging the opposition more, and not just going out there just to get the result. If we can keep producing it regularly and knock more mistakes out of our game, then we'll get more consistent results and week-in, week-out victories.
"From a commitment point of view, we had to batten down the hatches towards the end, missing Easterby for that 10-minute period. I was very happy that they defended well. They wanted to get in there and get the contact going, and that has been a big part of what we've been trying to get moving."
Having beaten Connacht 36-17 in Limerick on the 27th, Munster have now won their last three matches and three of their last four away games in all competitions. Paul O'Connell is starting as captain in the second row and partners Mick O'Driscoll, with Donncha O'Callaghan reverting to the bench in an entirely revised team to the one that beat Connacht. There are eight changes to the team that started against Connacht.
Coach Declan Kidney, whose mother, Eileen, died during the week, has a class backrow at his disposal, with Anthony Foley the steady hand flanked by two hugely athletic figures, Denis Leamy and David Wallace.
Jerry Flannery, now stronger and very mobile, has been impressing at hooker, while prop Marcus Horan's plan is to continue his love affair with Leinster. He hopes to become only the second player in Celtic League history to score tries in four successive appearances against the same opponents: the first was Ulster's Tommy Bowe against Connacht.
The centre partnership of Barry Murphy and former rugby league player Gary Connolly may not have the edge of Leinster's duo, but Connolly certainly brings a different bag of tricks to the RDS.
"I think they always bring a very, very strong tackling dynamic to their game," says Horgan.
"I think that's always an issue when you play the league guys, you know coming off the pitch that you've been in a few tackles. They are not afraid to run hard lines either. That's for certain, and they're not afraid to take contact because they are used to it for so long."
Horgan also tags Leinster as underdogs. Munster arrive as favourites, but Leinster offer a running game that has not quite been tweaked to perfection but is not as flimsy as it was at the last meeting.
Munster will put it to the test more severely than Ulster did, and Ronan O'Gara will frustrate with his tactical kicking. But O'Driscoll will be a factor, if only as an object for the opposition to worry about, despite his long absence in what is a classic meeting.
There will be a minute's silence before the match as a mark of respect to Des O'Brien, of the 1948 Grand Slam-winning Irish team, who died this week, aged 86, and Mrs Kidney.