THE PRE-MATCH words have been spoken, both teams have completed their preparation and we are just hours away from the biggest game of the Pro12 season so far.
Whatever about Leinster’s Six Nations champions and potentially disappointed Munster players, this encounter will be won and lost in the exchanges on the Lansdowne Road pitch.
Here, we look at some of the areas that could prove to have a decisive impact on the outcome of Leinster v Munster.
Munster’s ability to benefit from one-on-ones
So much of what Rob Penney has done with Munster over the last two seasons has been about creating one-on-one situations for his backs. Those wide-wide patterns are taxing on the defending side, and in a world where two-man tackles are the norm, the southern province have, at times, posed demanding questions.
They have probably got more threat across the field,” says Leinster head coach Matt O’Connor. “They are certainly playing with more width than they would have traditionally. They are probably playing from their own end more than they would have traditionally.”
Penney has backed his players to run the ball from deep if they feel they can beat defenders, and there is little sense that the Kiwi will desert his beliefs at this late stage of the season.
Denis Hurley coming in at 12 is an interesting twist, given that he so often gets his hands free in the tackle. While he may not win his one-on-one by beating the tackler outright, that ability to keep the ball alive means Simon Zebo and Keith Earls will look to trail him.
Further out the line, that wing pairing and fullback Felix Jones will look for busts, but the defensive strength of Brian O’Driscoll, Gordon D’Arcy and Luke Fitzgerald will make that a difficult task.
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When is it not key to the result of any game? There will be an intriguing clash of the side’s alternate strengths at the breakdown this evening, with Munster’s defensive competition looking to halt Leinster’s desire for rapid ruck speed.
Anthony Foley’s extensive work with Munster’s players at the breakdown has made them fiercely difficult to play against. The likes of Damien Varley, Paul O’Connell and Peter O’Mahony lead the way in terms of steals and in slowing possession.
Leinster coach O’Connor says the formula for preventing Munster getting on top at the breakdown is straightforward.
You have got to make sure you are very physical and very accurate. You can’t afford to leave it up to the interpretation of the referee. We have to make sure that we are there early and we are more physical than them. It is that simple.”
The eastern province’s best performance of the season came when their ruck speed was at its highest; no coincidence. The 40-7 victory away to Northampton saw Leinster blasting the breakdown with ferocious commitment and accuracy, allowing their backs to run riot.
Shane Jennings, Kevin McLaughlin and D’Arcy will be tasked with leading the way, but Leinster’s efforts at attacking rucks must be collective.
The scrum will be of obvious interest this evening, as the much-maligned Michael Bent starts for Leinster at loosehead. Up against the experience of BJ Botha, the New Zealand native faces the test of continuing his solid recent form in a high-profile setting.
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On the other side of the scrum, Mike Ross is likely to still be flooded with confidence after dismantling Thomas Domingo in Paris three weekends ago, meaning Dave Kilcoyne will need to paint positive pictures to referee Alain Rolland early on.
As for the line-out, Munster have three front-line jumping options in Dave Foley, O’Connell and O’Mahony, as well the spring of Tommy O’Donnell. Leinster’s line-out efforts will be led by Devin Toner, who says this game is no different to others.
They have a fair few options. Pete is a great jumper, Paulie is a great jumper. They have young Dave Foley, he is a great jumper as well. If you look across our team we have a great line-out as well.
“We do it every week. We look at them, analyse them and see where the best place to win it is. I know Paulie a little bit better now so I might see how it works.”
While Rhys Ruddock’s power will be missed by Leinster in the tight exchanges, the inclusion of McLaughlin provides them with another fine jumping option of their own.
Can Matt O’Connor put his stamp on this game?
Leinster’s results throughout the Six Nations period were undeniably strong, but the sense remains that we haven’t quite seen the fruits of O’Connor’s coaching in Leinster’s play this season.
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The wins over the Ospreys and Castres in the two opening pool games of the Heineken Cup saw his team focusing on territorial gains, while that victory over the Saints was built on the stunning Leinster attack we have grown accustomed to in recent years.
Their impressive Pro12 seven-game winning streak has seen more of the latter approach in racking up tries, but O’Connor admits there is a way to go in Leinster’s development yet.
We’ve got some growth to do in our game, no question.”
The Australian is of the belief that reintegrating the likes of O’Driscoll, Rob Kearney, Ross and Toner will allow Leinster to make the steps that are required.
“The tough bit is getting those test guys back and re-introducing them into our systems so that that it is a bit more automatic. Thankfully we have had this week to get a lot of that work done. Moving forward to the end of the season, it puts us in a pretty good place.”