SATURDAY’S PRO12 CLASH between the top two sides is perfectly placed ahead of next weekend’s crucial, knock-out games in the Heineken Cup. People may have spoken about this fixture losing its intensity in recent years but it is still as huge as ever, in terms of banter, desire and teams wanting to tear into each other.
Munster need to get a result if they want to finish at the top of the table as, I believe, they have a tougher run-in than Leinster. They need to get that step ahead of Leinster to guarantee that home semi-final. Ulster are bound to benefit from whatever result we get tomorrow and are liable to take on of those top two spots.
Both coaches have named strong sides without ever dealing from the full deck. They will give it 100% but I expect there to be two or three changes in key positions for the cup games.
There has been a lot of talk about how both team’s statistics have been similar this season but the record of Munster not having beaten Leinster at the Aviva is the all important one. While Leinster have gone on one of their customary winning streaks, Munster could do with a good performance, and win, ahead of the Toulouse game. From my time as a Leinster player, nothing did the trick better of getting you focused than an interpro, preferably against Munster. You knew that if you blink, the other guys will punish you for it.
I had not heard much about any disharmony between James Downey and Munster so his non-selection certainly raises an eyebrow. Will he be in the squad for the Toulouse game next week? It’s hard to say. I would fully expect Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy to go straight for the jugular as Denis Hurley may be perceived as the weak-link.
Keith Earls is looking good after his latest comeback while Simon Zebo will feel that this game is his chance to show Joe Schmidt that he has the complete game. There have been questions about his off the ball and defensive work but we all know what a threat he is in attack. They will be up against Fergus McFadden and Luke Fitzgerald, another couple of lads unlucky not to be starting for Ireland recently.
Two guys who I suspect will, are Ian Keatley and Dave Foley of Munster. This is the chance for two lads who have kept the home fires burning during the six Nations window and who now have their chance on the big stage. Tommy O’Donnell, who has a right to be aggrieved at missing out on the business end of the Six Nations, will be itching to get stuck in. The back row battle looks intriguing but, then, there are ding-dong match-ups all over the pitch.
Source: James Crombie/INPHO
The most intriguing area — and it makes a nice change — is the second row duel. Munster will miss Donnacha Ryan but it will be fascinating to see Devin Toner take on his Ireland partner Paul O’Connell. Now that Leo Cullen is out, Toner will be calling the Irish line-outs and O’Connell will relish the prospect of getting after him.
Both benches have enough firepower with Munster able to call on the likes of Dave Kilcoyne, CJ Stander, JJ Hanrahan and Gerhard van den Heever, while Leinster have Jordi Murphy, Jimmy Gopperth and Zane Kirchner in reserve. Kirchner is not quite of that Isa [Nacewa] ilk but is such a reliable player in terms of covering positions in the backline.
One battle that may have just fallen in Munster’s favour is the front row, now that Leinster have lost both Cian Healy and Jack McGrath. You can be sure Munster will be targeting Michael Bent’s side of the scrum. I would not expect the ball to go wide too much from Munster, especially in the opening half. They are playing a mixture of that Rob Penney [wide, offloads] rugby and Munster [forward dominated] rugby this season. When they get it right they are bloody hard to stop.
Saying that, I don’t see Leinster’s league record at the Aviva changing tomorrow. It will be physical, it will be bruising, there will be tries yet it will be tight. I expect Leinster to keep their nose in front but it will be no walk in the park.
@shanebyrneoffic played hooker for Leinster and Saracens, won 45 Test caps for Ireland between 2001 and 2005 and 4 Test appearances with The British & Irish Lions.