Intrigue and interest as intense as ever
Leinster have the strength in depth, but Munster could still turn them over
Round Six Leinster v Munster
Aviva Stadium, 6.0pm Eir Sport 1
If Leinster thought everybody was out to beat them above all others on foot of last season’s all-conquering double, that feeling is about to be ramped up a notch or three over the next few weeks, starting from teatime today.
They’d expect nothing less, mind, from Munster of all people, and all the more so after the two camps unveiled their hands for the latest instalment of this age-old rivalry.
As expected, with their Heineken Champions Cup opener against Wasps at the RDS beckoning in six days’ time, Leo Cullen has made 11 changes from the side which beat Connacht last weekend. Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Jordan Larmour, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan have been rested after starting Leinster’s last three games in succession, and ditto Tadhg Furlong.
Somewhat surprisingly, though – not least to Leinster, one suspects – Johann van Graan has retained a dozen of the side which ran up a record win over Ulster last week, with Jean Kleyn, Sammy Arnold and Darren Sweetnam restored.
This means a fourth successive start for captain Peter O’Mahony, Tadhg Beirne, Joey Carbery and Andrew Conway, and with the opening rounds in Europe to come. Furthermore, Carbery appeared off the bench in the two games prior to this run.
Not that any of this dims the intrigue. As Rob Kearney observed earlier this week, it may have lost some of its “hatred” from the past, but this fixture has lost none of its appeal. Perhaps in part due to the RDS semi-final in May, ticket sales have exceeded 49,000, the most for this match-up since the 51,700 capacity was reached five seasons ago, cementing its status as the best-attended game beneath test rugby in the global game over the last decade.
Time was when Leinster went through a rough patch at the Aviva Stadium in Europe, but it’s been a very productive venue change both on and off the pitch lately. Last season’s wins over Munster and Exeter were supplemented by knock-out wins over Saracens and the Scarlets, thus extending Leinster’s winning run at the venue to nine since losing to Toulon three seasons ago.
By contrast, Munster and their supporters must have developed a distinct disliking for the place in recent times. They have lost on their last five treks to the Aviva, a particular graveyard two seasons ago, and their 34-23 win in this competition in October 2014 remains Munster’s only victory in their last 11 visits here.
Reflecting ruefully on that defeat in his first season as head coach, Cullen said: “It was a tough old game for us, we were well and truly beaten here and then we lost down in Thomond which was a tough one for me to try and get my head around.
“So it’s important that we get the fundamentals of our game right first because that’s where Munster will test us out. Theirs is a slightly different dynamic in attack that they have now, which is new and which we will try and prepare for, but every game throws up something you may have not have seen before and prepared for.”
Individual milestones abound, with the aforementioned Kearney making his 200th competitive appearance for Leinster, and Luke McGrath will reach his century if he’s introduced off the bench, while Andrew Conway reaches 100 caps for Munster against his former province. In addition to all of that, Devin Toner overtakes Cullen to become the third highest capped Leinster player of all time on 222, behind Gordon D’Arcy (261) and Jamie Heaslip (229).
Leinster’s unequalled strength in depth ensures they can still field a strong selection, with Jack McGrath making his first start since May and Seán O’Brien his first since March, and in an eight jersey, which Cullen intimated could become more commonplace. They also welcome back the energy and accuracy of James Ryan and Dan Leavy.
While Sexton won’t be present, the match-up between Ross Byrne and Carbery – who really looks a key figure – will be intriguing, and the collision between the two backrows could be worth the admission money alone.
The Munster backrow are all good over the ball – O’Mahony leading the way last week by winning four turnovers – and are supplemented by Beirne, the competition’s leading poacher last season. So Leinster will need to be at their most accurate.
Cullen is not alone in finding it hard to gauge Munster’s form so far – van Graan is the same – but, boosted by last week’s handsome win, they look well primed for a big performance here. Indeed, it would be no surprise if Munster turned Leinster over. They’re due one. Either way it has the makings of another cracker.
It’s important that we get the fundamentals of our game right first because that’s where Munster will test us out