In­trigue and in­ter­est as in­tense as ever

Le­in­ster have the strength in depth, but Mun­ster could still turn them over

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

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.

Best-at­tended

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.

Fun­da­men­tals

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

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