Le­in­ster braced for Thomond test

Mun­ster need a clin­i­cal cut­ting edge in at­tack to halt the cham­pi­ons

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gavin Cum­miskey

Round 12 Mun­ster v Le­in­ster Thomond Park, 5.15pm Eir Sport

This De­cem­ber derby, taken in splen­did iso­la­tion, has pro­vided a launch­pad for Garry Rin­grose and Jor­dan Lar­mour to show­case their daz­zling gifts.

Both re­turn to Lim­er­ick as es­tab­lished mem­bers of a Le­in­ster team look­ing a lit­tle closer to its best Euro­pean se­lec­tion than a Mun­ster group shorn of Peter O’Ma­hony and Chris Farrell.

At least both sides are stronger than in pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions of this fes­tive gath­er­ing. Johnny Sex­ton leads the dou­ble cham­pi­ons into 2019 with Ciarán Fraw­ley, in­ter­est­ingly, named as cover to the World Player of the Year.

Sex­ton, Lar­mour and Rin­grose are gelled by Rory O’Lough­lin, re­warded for re­cent show­ings with a start at in­side cen­tre (Rob­bie Hen­shaw is due to re­cover be­fore the Six Na­tions con­cludes).

Mun­ster do of­fer strong re­sis­tance as Conor Mur­ray and Joey Car­bery’s fledg­ling part­ner­ship is in­vited to click. Their sym­bio­sis seems es­sen­tial in a World Cup year that de­mands noth­ing short of great­ness.

For Car­bery the fo­cus can nar­row. He must kick his goals to en­sure the re­cent Cas­tres ex­pe­ri­ence, land­ing three from six in a one-point de­feat, gets la­belled blip not pat­tern.

The hosts’ back field – Mike Ha­ley, An­drew Con­way and Keith Earls – has more than cov­ered the loss of Si­mon Zebo with Ha­ley due in­creased ex­po­sure to Ire­land camp, if not the match-day squads, in com­ing months.

The only pity is Farrell and Rin­grose will not col­lide on this oc­ca­sion. Their ri­valry for Ire­land’s No 13 jer­sey had shaped into a gen­uine ar­gu­ment un­til Farrell’s in­jury-cursed ca­reer was again in­ter­rupted by knee dam­age last sea­son. He re­turned, look­ing as phys­i­cally dom­i­nant as ever, only to pull up with quad prob­lems.

Watch this space but the na­tional slot be­longs to Rin­grose.

All this back­line talk is pre­am­ble to the real war.

Up front, Tadhg Beirne knows his time is now, es­pe­cially with Iain Hen­der­son ruled out for three months fol­low­ing thumb surgery. Beirne has been world class in Mun­ster red this sea­son, adding li­ne­out prow­ess to an un­mov­able pres­ence over op­po­si­tion ball.

Be­fore Novem­ber calls were loud and sus­tained to put Devin Toner out to pas­ture but, of course, vic­tory over the All Blacks made such a sug­ges­tion seem fool­ish. Toner and James Ryan are the res­i­dent Ire­land sec­ondrows with Hen­der­son pro­vid­ing ideal cover.

Hence, Beirne’s time is now.

Well-rounded play­ers

None of these men, not even Ryan, can be con­sid­ered the form lock on this is­land. That would be Scott Fardy. Le­in­ster’s trea­sure trove of tal­ent earn­ing back-to-back wins over Bath as Leo Cullen left Fardy out of both Euro­pean squads – that damn em­ploy­ment rule and Jami­son Gib­son-Park’s value at scrumhalf forced Cullen’s hand – seems al­most un­fair.

Of late Fardy has been phe­nom­e­nal in the less seen matches that Isa Nacewa used to will young Le­in­ster sides past the win­ning post. These so-called sec­ond stringers are full of sur­pris­ingly well-rounded play­ers who fol­lowed the for­mer Wal­laby deep into multi-phase de­feats of Tre­viso, the South­ern Kings, the Ospreys and the Dragons.

The last two scalps re­sulted in a com­bined tally of 111-17 with Fardy look­ing ev­ery inch the blind­side, mas­querad­ing at lock, that helped Michael Cheika’s Aus­tralia reach the 2015 World Cup fi­nal. Now that the for­mer Le­in­ster coach has sur­vived the night of long knives Down Un­der, a re­call for his 34-year-old lieu­tenant must be im­mi­nent.

Seven of this Mun­ster pack are ex­pected to start in Glouces­ter on Jan­uary 11th so they might deny his ruck ef­fec­tive­ness, and rup­ture Le­in­ster’s now rou­tine dom­i­nance of pos­ses­sion. Un­likely.

Fi­neen Wy­cher­ley is re­tained as O’Ma­hony, pre­sum­ably, gets ex­tra time to heal fol­low­ing a bru­tal 2018 lead­ing Ire­land to glory upon crow­ing glory. CJ Stander takes over captaincy in his ab­sence.

“We’ve been look­ing for­ward to this for a long time,” said Jo­hann van Graan as the Mun­ster coach seeks con­sis­tency from a cam­paign that has re­cently fal­tered with de­feat to Cas­tres fol­lowed by the loss in Belfast on De­cem­ber 21st.

“Cham­pi­ons of Europe and the Pro 14, they are clearly way above the rest at this stage. Just look at the team that beat the All Blacks: Le­in­ster had 13 and Mun­ster had four. Mas­sive chal­lenge for us.”

Still, Mun­ster re­main in con­trol of their Euro­pean destiny – two grue­some English du­els ap­proach­ing – and lie sec­ond in Con­fer­ence A of the Pro 14 with seven wins from 11 out­ings.

Relentless march

That, equally, high­lights the dif­fer­ences be­tween these old ri­vals. Le­in­ster are de­stroy­ing the do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion with 400 points ac­cu­mu­lated (56 tries), and only 177 con­ceded, in 10 wins from 11. Only Toulouse in Toulouse could suf­fi­ciently stall their relentless march.

Van Graan is right, Le­in­ster are peer­less these days. Mun­ster are not des­per­ate to realign the old bal­ance of power – that may no longer be pos­si­ble – they only want to pre­vent the sack­ing Thomond Park for a third time in four sea­sons, and keep an­other Rin­grose or Lar­mour from an­nounc­ing him­self on their patch.

Maybe Car­bery can fill that role. The stage is cer­tainly set. If not, the cur­rent or­der will con­tinue as Le­in­ster bat­ter a Mun­ster of­fence that has lacked scor­ing ac­cu­racy at cru­cial mo­ments.

That’s the ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence. Iso­late logic, as only this fix­ture can, and an un­com­fort­able Le­in­ster vic­tory could be de­nied.

For Car­bery the fo­cus can nar­row. He must kick his goals to en­sure the re­cent Cas­tres ex­pe­ri­ence, land­ing three from six in a one-point de­feat, gets la­belled blip not pat­tern

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