Arch-rivals set up for high-stakes game to secure vital points

Leinster look to league’s meanest defence to deny Munster crucial Pro12 victory

They’ve had bigger games. They’ve had bigger crowds. But Leinster and Munster have rarely encountered each other in such acute need for league points. Munster’s need is more desperate, but Leinster’s is greater than it would have been three weeks ago.

Munster go into the weekend in the last of the four playoff spots, seven points adrift of Leinster in the second of the home semi-final berths, but with Ulster, Glasgow and seventh-placed Edinburgh all breathing down their necks.

Defeat here could not only seriously imperil their playoff aspirations and thus affect their seeding for next season’s European Champions Cup draw, but endanger their very participation in the premier European competition for the first time.

At the very least, it could make their penultimate regular season game at home to Edinburgh decidedly jittery, for as Conor Murray admitted during the course of the Six Nations, Munster's qualification for the competition they have won twice and garnished with countless memories was "non-negotiable". No doubt he was speaking for all in the organisation and beyond.


Troubled waters

For their part though, Leinster’s seemingly safe passage to a home semi-final has hit troubled waters after successive defeats to Glasgow and Connacht, although a restorative win here would set them up nicely for a run-in against Edinburgh (home), Ulster (away) and Treviso (home).

Nonetheless, Leo Cullen yesterday rejected the notion that all the pressure was on Munster. “There is pressure on both teams. Everyone wants to progress into the semi-finals. We have lost two games on the bounce, Glasgow and Connacht away, and we just want to get back to winning ways. There is enough pressure involved in that and in what we want to do in terms of delivering a performance in the Aviva Stadium . . . So guys have prepared well this week.”

“There is always some soul- searching that goes on after losing a couple of games, so we just need to focus in on what’s important for us to deliver a performance. External factors like must-win games and who it is more important for are not really important to us. It will still be important for both teams if we were 12th and they were first because it is a rivalry that has been there for many years and they are great occasions.”

Murray is one of five players recalled to Munster's starting line-up after his try-scoring, goalkicking cameo off the bench last week, along with the only All Black player in the Irish provinces, Francis Saili, captain CJ Stander, James Cronin and Andrew Conway, with Keith Earls reverting to the wing.

Murray and Stander are coming off the back of fine Six Nations' campaigns, but against that Leo Cullen welcomes back Johnny Sexton, Jack McGrath, Devin Toner and Jamie Heaslip – the latter three having appeared off the bench. Cullen also recalls Zane Kirchner, Dave Kearney, Eoin Reddan, Seán Cronin and Jordi Murphy, with Mike Ross and Cian Healy again held back in what looks like a marginally stronger bench.

Anthony Foley’s biggest call is to retain young Johnny Holland, as Isa Nacewa acknowledged yesterday. “It’s such a big occasion. It’s why we play the game, but he deserves the opportunity after the way he played against Zebre. He was exciting, he was on point and he took that opportunity. You’ve got to be wary of him. We are used to seeing Keats, but it is a big occasion and he will probably enjoy the occasion as much as the guy next to him.”

As to whether Leinster would seek to give Holland a particularly warm welcome to the Aviva, the Leinster captain said: “We try and do that to most guys but with 40,000 people-plus at the Aviva Stadium we just have to concentrate on ourselves first and foremost, especially coming off the back of two losses. ”

Standout fixture

Over 40,000 tickets have been sold for what remains the standout fixture in the domestic calendar in the professional era, and tickets will be on sale from Ticketmaster outside the Ballsbridge Hotel from 1.30pm onwards.

Much of the battle hinges on the day. Leinster have won all bar one of their 14 league games held at the Aviva, the exception being when Munster won here 34-23 last season. But Leinster won on the previous six occasions they met here.

Leinster also beat Munster 24-7 at Thomond Park in December, when the scoreline was slightly distorted by Kirchner’s late intercept try, and are thus seeking a first seasonal double over their arch-rivals since the 2012/2013 season.

Nonetheless, Leinster looked to have a little more about them that day, and while they haven’t scored a try in 224 minutes, the return of Sexton for what will be only his sixth Pro12 game of the season and fifth start should sharpen their attacking game.

Under Kurt McQuilkin’s highly respected watch, Leinster also possess comfortably the best defence in the League this season, a platform that has enabled them to withstand opposition periods of pressure and then stealthily take enough of their opportunities to get over the winning line.