Leinster can steal a march on Munster as rivals renew battle

Henshaw’s debut and O’Mahony’s return add lustre to hugely anticipated Pro12 clash

Leinster v Munster, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 2.05 (TG4 and Sky Sports 1)

It's back, and not a moment too soon, for the league itself and for both Leinster and Munster. No less than for last night's derby duelists, this comes in the nick of time for the provinces to ready themselves for initial forays in Europe against more match-hardened French sides.

In these pages during the week, Gordon D’Arcy lamented that the old rivalry has lost some of its lustre since the highs of the last decade, but then again this depends on your reference point. It’s still the biggest show of the weekend, anywhere in Europe.

"I think Darce has a very blurred view of the past," maintained an unusually outspoken Leo Cullen yesterday.

“If you look back to Leinster v Munster in Dooradoyle when there was what, 200 or 300 at an interprovincial game? Leinster played a game against Munster at the RDS five or six years ago and there was a hell of a lot less than 40,000 people at it.

“So I think some of the comments are a little bit unfair. I think you’ll see from the intensity of the players what it really means to them.

“In many ways it feels like we’re trying to justify this fixture, that it is a great rivalry,” added Cullen, “because I would struggle to find a fixture anywhere else in the world that has this sense of rivalry.

“So I think we need to celebrate it, rather than say it’s not the way it once was. Say, provincial rivalries in New Zealand, do you think any of their games are as good as this in terms of 40,000 people coming through the turnstiles and the sense of media interest? South Africa or Australia, you’d struggle to get a comparison.”

First outing

This one has been given added lustre by Cullen handing a debut to Robbie Henshaw and Peter O'Mahony leading out Munster in his first start in almost a year since rupturing his cruciate knee ligaments against France in the World Cup.

Henshaw's rustiness will be offset by his familiarity with Johnny Sexton, alongside whom he has won the majority of his 22 caps. That Henshaw is one of eight internationals being recalled by the Leinster shows how well primed they are and to what extent they have targeted this match.

Even then, they can afford to rest leading try-scorer Josh van der Flier and Zane Kirchner, despite Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney being sidelined. Young centre Rory O'Loughlin will makes his first league start at home on the wing.

Munster have reverted in some respects to type with a strong scrum and maul – witness Conor Murray's three close-range tries – with John Ryan benefiting from being a specialist tighthead.

The backrow collision will be worth the admission money alone given the presence of six proven Test players vying for slots in the Irish squad to face the All Blacks, with the return to the starting line-up of Jamie Heaslip and Jordi Murphy.

They are recalled along with fellow Ireland internationals Cian Healy, Sean Cronin, Tadhg Furlong and Devin Toner.

Niall Scannell and John Ryan both return to the Munster frontrow, with Rory Scannell having recovered from his neck injury to partner Keith Earls, and Ronan O'Mahony recalled to the wing.

League challenge

Munster will also bring an improved defence under the influence of Jacques Nienaber, with Cullen detecting that the men in red are "defending higher on the edges". The arrival of Stuart Lancaster has also upped Leinster's line speed in defence, which was the bedrock of their league challenge last season anyhow.

It could be suffocating at times, with line breaks at a premium, but it will be no less intense for all that.

Leinster also recall Luke McGrath, Garry Ringrose, Isa Nacewa and Rob Kearney, whose inclusion means a head-to-head with Simon Zebo, who started more games than Kearney at fullback for Ireland last season.

The table finds them second and third with four wins out of five, although one could argue that Leinster’s successes have been more notable.

Leinster are also at home, and possibly have a little bit more about them, including off the bench and notably in the frontrow. And then there is Sexton in such good nick, even if Tyler Bleyendaal has given Munster more composure from outhalf.

Either way, one suspects that much of the old antipathy will manifest itself. It should be both interesting and revealing as to where these two are. Bring it on.

LEINSTER: R Kearney; R O'Loughlin, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, I Nacewa (capt); J Sexton, L McGrath; C Healy, S Cronin, T Furlong, D Toner, I Nagle, R Ruddock, J Murphy, J Heaslip. Replacements: J Tracy, J McGrath, M Ross, R Molony, D Leavy, J Gibson-Park, J Carbery, N Reid.

MUNSTER: S Zebo; D Sweetnam, K Earls, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, N Scannell, J Ryan, D Ryan, B Holland, P O'Mahony (capt), T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Replacements: D Casey, J Cronin, S Archer, R Copeland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, I Keatley, J Taute.

Referee: David Wilkinson (IRFU)

League head-to-head record: Played 29, Leinster won 17, Munster won 12.

Last three seasons: 2013-14 – Munster 19 Leinster 15 (Thomond Park); Leinster 22 Munster 18 (Aviva Stadium). 2014-15 – Leinster 23 Munster 34, (Aviva Stadium); Munster 28 Leinster 13 (Thomond Park). 2015-16 – Munster 7 Leinster 24, (Thomond Park); Leinster 16 Munster 13 (Aviva Stadium).

Leading try scorers: Leinster – Josh van der Flier 3. Munster – Conor Murray 3.

Leading points scorers: Leinster – Jonathan Sexton 27. Munster – Tyler Bleyendaal 36.

Betting (Paddy Power): 2/5 Leinster, 17/1 Draw, 21/10 Munster. Handicap odds (Munster +6pts) 10/11 Leinster, 22/1 Draw, 10/11 Munster.

Forecast: Leinster to win.

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