United Rugby Championship
Munster v Leinster
Venue: Thomond Park.
On TV: Live on RTÉ and Premier Sports
It’s probably a blessing in many ways that this game was postponed from St Stephen’s Day given the crowd for that traditional festive derby, usually a sell-out, would have been restricted to 5,000. That said, for the first time in many years at Munster’s Limerick citadel, this Saturday night renewal of hostilities looks like being some way short of a sell-out.
Although the return of expats makes a festive meeting particularly attractive, bearing in mind this is the first time an unrestricted crowd has been permitted at Thomond Park for this fixture since Christmas 2019, that is a surprise.
A post-Six Nations fall-off, the onset of Munster’s European Champions Cup last-16 two-legged tie against Exeter, and this being confirmation and communion season have all been offered as factors but even so, a 20,000-plus crowd will probably make for a more atmospheric occasion than the Aviva has offered of late.
Ronan O’Gara, for one, argues that given the recent history of this fixture, Munster need a win tonight more than in those upcoming Euro games with Exeter. Although Munster ended a six-match losing streak (their longest ever against Leinster) in the sides’ Rainbow Cup first-round meeting last April at the RDS, that came with a caveat, namely Munster were much closer to full strength.
Indeed, Leinster have still won 10 of the last 12 meetings between the two and there’s no doubt Munster’s need looks the greater here, and not merely for the psychological benefits of putting one over their dominant neighbours.
Munster sit third, eight points behind Leinster and, with Ulster three points ahead of them, eyeing a top-two finish, but they also have Glasgow and Edinburgh breathing down their necks.
As expected, Johann van Graan has not risked Simon Zebo (concussion), Jean Kleyn (leg) and Mike Haley (knee), all of whom should return next week against Exeter, as well as Dave Kilcoyne (neck) and Tadhg Beirne (thigh).
He has recalled three players who were on the Irish bench against Scotland, namely captain Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray and Joey Carbery, in three of nine changes from the starting XV for last week’s win over Benetton.
For his part, Leo Cullen hasn’t named Johnny Sexton, and is missing Andrew Porter, Ronan Kelleher and James Ryan, all of whom are back training to some degree and might well feature in the two-legged Champions Cup last-16 tie with Connacht.
But he has restored seven of the Irish starting line-up against Scotland a fortnight ago: Hugo Keenan, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan, as well as Robbie Henshaw, while also naming the front-row from that game on a strong-looking bench.
While not wanting to tempt fate with a relatively favourable weather forecast, van Graan has declared: “I think with the way we’ve played in the last five weeks specifically, we’re looking to keep some ball in hand.
“Obviously they’re exceptional with ball in hand so I think both teams will play positive rugby. Both are also the best defensively in Europe, conceding something around 1.4 tries per game,” added van Graan, also highlighting the tactical battle, the balance between attacking and kicking and the innumerable individual battles.
“You can literally go all across the park – very exciting from our side and it’s always great when Leinster play Munster.”
Listening to both Damian de Allende and Niall Scannell this week, the vibe from the Munster camp is that lessons were learned from both the Pro14 final defeat by Leinster last March, and the ensuing win in the Rainbow Cup four weeks later.
Whereas they were too fearful of making mistakes in the first of those two meetings and played within themselves, Munster were determined to throw the kitchen sink at the Rainbow Cup rematch.
For sure this is a much stronger Leinster line-up – retaining only three of that starting XV – but even so Munster won well and are surely resolved to play with some of the attacking intent they demonstrated that day and of late.
Yet the bookies make Leinster six-point favourites and this is because they simply look to have the stronger line-up, and bench.
MUNSTER: Matt Gallagher; Calvin Nash, Chris Farrell, Damian de Allende, Shane Daly; Joey Carbery, Conor Murray; Jeremy Loughman, Niall Scannell, Stephen Archer; Jason Jenkins, Fineen Wycherley; Peter O’Mahony (capt), Chris Cloete, Gavin Coombes.
Replacements: Diarmuid Barron, Josh Wycherley, John Ryan, Thomas Ahern, Alex Kendellen, Craig Casey, Ben Healy, Keith Earls.
LEINSTER: Hugo Keenan; Jimmy O’Brien, Garry Ringrose (capt), Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Ross Byrne, Jamison Gibson-Park; Ed Byrne, James Tracy, Michael Ala’alatoa, Devin Toner, Jack Dunne, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan.
Replacements: Dan Sheehan, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Ross Molony, Josh Murphy, Luke McGrath, Ciarán Frawley, Max Deegan.
Referee: Christophe Ridley (RFU)