Feisty affair on the cards as buoyant Munster welcome Leinster to Thomond

Ireland head coach Andy Farrell will be a keen observer of Saturday night’s clash

Munster’s Keith Earls tangles with  Scott Fardy of Leinster during the Guinness Pro 14 semi-final at the Aviva stadium last September. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Munster’s Keith Earls tangles with Scott Fardy of Leinster during the Guinness Pro 14 semi-final at the Aviva stadium last September. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Pro 14: Munster v Leinster, Thomond Park, Saturday, 7.35pm – Live on Eir Sport 1, Premier Sports 2. Deferred on TG4 at 9.30pm

It’s hard to generate cordite when there’s no fans, sub-zero temperatures and possibly snow in the air but if anybody can do it it’s this pair. Fate has decreed that this match has been conveniently rescheduled after its postponement on St Stephen’s Day and so, instead, the old rivals go mano-a-mano at near enough to full-strength two weeks out from the Six Nations opener in Cardiff.

All told, there are 26 internationals in the starting line-ups, and 37 in the two matchday squads – all but two of them Irish. Match-ups abound and provided there are no injuries, Andy Farrell couldn’t have scripted it better before announcing a squad of around 35 players for the opening two games of the Six Nations on Monday.

Both sides are pretty much at full-strength, allowing for the injured RG Snyman, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Furlong and James Lowe. Munster make just two changes to the starting XV which overcame Connacht a fortnight ago, with Rhys Marshall and John Ryan recalled to the frontrow.

Ryan is thus also one of just two changes from the team which pulled off that remarkable comeback win in Clermont, with James Cronin now fit again. As the same applies with Dave Kilcoyne and Niall Scannell, they also join Stephen Archer in a strong replacement frontrow.

As ever, Leo Cullen and the Leinster think tank have had to make some big calls. So it is that Seán Cronin, Will Connors, Luke McGrath and Jimmy O’Brien have been preferred to Rónan Kelleher, Josh van der Flier, Jamison Gibson-Park and Dave Kearney.

Despite scoring seven tries in his nine games this season, Kearney doesn’t even make the bench, which is a tribute to what O’Brien offers with his big left boot and finishing in what will be his first start on the wing after 19 starts at outside centre or fullback.

Nor is there a place in the matchday squad for Ryan Baird or Dan Leavy who, like Kearney, is understood to have had a slight niggle earlier in the week.

Garry Ringrose’s welcome return from a second broken jaw this season means he and Robbie Henshaw have a third meaty match-up against Damian de Allende and Chris Farrell.

Garry Ringrose returns to the Leinster midfield for Saturday night’s Guinness Pro 14 trip to Thomond Park to take on Munster. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Garry Ringrose returns to the Leinster midfield for Saturday night’s Guinness Pro 14 trip to Thomond Park to take on Munster. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

As things stand, Munster are well placed to top Conference B and reach the final, or earn a home semi-final should the Rainbow Cup be cancelled and the Pro14 revert to a longer format with playoffs.

Having lost three away semi-finals in a row to Leinster, ultimately Munster are probably going to have to beat them in a semi-final or final if they are to win their first trophy in a decade. Therefore, were Munster to accumulate more points than Leinster by the end of the conference stages it could result in them having home advantage in a semi-final or final. They currently have four points less than Leinster, who themselves trail Ulster in Conference B by five points, albeit with two games in hand.

Having lost eight of the past nine meetings, Munster also look as well primed as at any stage in recent times. They are settled and confident after the wins in Clermont and Galway.

They also look well equipped to cope at scrum time, both from the start and in the endgame. The only try in last September’s semi-final was when the Leinster pack mauled over the Munster line. In light of that indignity, one imagines Graham Rowntree will have replayed that one a few times this week.

Given the conditions, tries might be at a premium again, and no less than in Clermont, the box-kicking of Conor Murray and the goal-kicking of JJ Hanrahan will again need to be spot on if Munster are to deny Leinster a postwar, record-equalling fifth win in a row.

This is also Munster’s first home match in six weeks since beating Harlequins at Thomond Park, where they have won seven games in a row since Leinster stormed their fortress in December 2019.

That said, another caveat is that home advantage is diluted without any supporters. Of course both sides have become all too familiar with the new abnormal, but even so given the umbilical connection between home team and supporters alike, a throbbing full house would have been guaranteed to inject Munster with surges of energy.

They will for sure generate that on the pitch and on the sidelines, as will Leinster, in what is liable to be a feisty affair for Andrew Brace to provide over. The bookies make Leinster three-point favourites. The sides look evenly balanced. But with Johnny Sexton at the helm, Leinster may just have the quality to better maximise their chances.

Either way, these two rarely do dull.

MUNSTER: Mike Haley; Keith Earls, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; JJ Hanrahan, Conor Murray; James Cronin, Rhys Marshall, John Ryan; Jean Kleyn, Tadhg Beirne; Gavin Coombes, Peter O’Mahony (capt), CJ Stander.

Replacements: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Stephen Archer, Fineen Wycherley, Jack O’Donoghue, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Rory Scannell.

LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jordan Larmour, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, Jimmy O’Brien; Johnny Sexton (capt), Luke McGrath; Cian Healy, Seán Cronin, Andrew Porter; Scott Fardy, James Ryan; Rhys Ruddock, Will Connors, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rónan Kelleher, Ed Byrne, Tom Clarkson, Ross Molony, Jack Conan, Jamison Gibson-Park, Ross Byrne, Josh van der Flier.

Referee: Andrew Brace.

Assistant referees: Seán Gallagher, Eoghan Cross.

TMO: Joy Neville.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

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