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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Thomond Park, Limerick
Friday, 2nd April 2010, 20:05

Television: Live Setanta Sports 1

Never before has a Munster-Leinster Magners league game caught the imagination of the nation like this. Granted, much of the attention is down to the furore caused in Limerick by the game being fixed for Good Friday. Then a local judge decided to make it a "Great Friday" by allowing the pubs to serve alcohol, and in one swoop set the Irish drinking classes free from years of oppression from the Catholic Church!!

Well perhaps that's overstating it, but the decision has certainly provoked much debate about a ban on alcohol for religious reasons in modern Ireland.

Perhaps a solution would be to leave the existing alcohol ban in place but to add a clause to insist that Catholic churches are also closed on Good Friday. If practising Catholics want to have a mass together they can do so in the confines of their own homes. They can stock up on communion wine, wafers and holy water the night before and make a spiritual house party of it. It might seem petty but perhaps it would make them understand the frustration of having their behaviour dictated to by people with different belief systems.

Back to the rugby though and while it's an important match for both teams, you can't help but feel that the new play-off system has stripped the fixture of much of it's intensity. Leinster are four points ahead of Munster with a game in hand. Under the old straight-out league system a Leinster win tomorrow would have put Munster pretty much out of contention, eight points behind the leaders with only three games left.

However, under the new system even a defeat for Munster, though certainly not desirable, wouldn't be the end of the world as they'd still be well able to get into the top four. Similarly for Leinster, a win tomorrow would be great, but in their current strong position, a defeat wouldn't be a disaster either in their quest to get into the top two for the Home draw.

The match also has to be viewed in the context of both teams' Heineken Cup quarter-finals next weekend. As much as the players will want to win tomorrow, there's not one of them that wouldn't swap it for a win next week against Clermont or Northampton. Despite all that, the fixture will still retain some of its inherent intensity, mainly due to the recent results between the teams.

Munster won both the Magners League games last season with an aggregate score of 40-5. Of course then came the famous Croke Park semi-final and then earlier this season Leinster won 30-0 at the RDS. It was the first time Munster were held scoreless in their professional history and for it to happen against Leinster cut their players to the bone. They'll certainly be out for revenge tomorrow but they were out for revenge at the RDS and we saw how that turned out!

Munster's form this season has fluctuated between the nadir of the RDS and the excellence of their bonus point demolition of Perpignan away from home. For the most part though, their form has been in a bit of a 'no man's land', not terrible but not to the standards they normally expect of themselves. Last season it was their consistency in the league that made them runaway winners and much of this was down to the excellence of their squad, who kept notching up the wins when the internationals were away.

This season though, due to injuries and retirements, their squad hasn't been as strong and they've struggled to get the same level of performance in the league. Their away form in particular has been a worry with only one win on the road against the Scarlets. They're seven from seven at home though and they'll be hoping to maintain that record tomorrow.

They'll have to do it without their captain Paul O'Connell though who is out with a groin injury. They are able to welcome back internationals in John Hayes, David Wallace, Tony Buckley, Tomas O'Leary and Jerry Flannery who returns from suspension. Keith Earls also misses out but even without him and O'Connell it's still much closer to their full strength line-up than Leinster who are more depleted by injury.

Brian O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan and Kevin McLaughlin are still missing along with long-term absentees Luke Fitzgerald and Sean O'Brien. The good news for Leinster though is that both Nathan Hines and Gordon D'Arcy have been declared fit and both start the match. Hines plays his second game for Leinster in the backrow coming in for Rhys Ruddock. Jamie Heaslip also returns at number eight for Stephen Keogh who is a tad unfortunate to drop out of the starting line-up. In the second row Devin Toner starts ahead of Malcolm O'Kelly who drops to the bench. In the front row CJ van der Linde replaces Mike Ross and Cian Healy is on the bench.

In the backs the only change is the return of D'Arcy for Shaun Berne at inside centre. Girvan Dempsey retains his place on the right wing, which will provide a talking point amongst fans as he struggled there against Fionn Carr last week. It's perhaps right that he hasn't been made a scapegoat though as the all round team performance was as poor as we've seen in the RDS all season. Connacht were truly unlucky not to win and Michael Cheika said as much, but hopefully it will serve as a wake-up call to the squad as a similar performance this week or next week would surely seem them destroyed. The one positive was, despite the dreadful performance, they still found a way to dig out a win.

Given home advantage and the respective strengths of the starting line-ups Munster will be big favourites to win. That being said, all the pressure will be on them and Leinster have had some notable wins on the road this season, particularly away to Cardiff, when they were also big underdogs. If this Leinster team can survive the early onslaught from the Munster pack and keep in the match going into the last twenty minutes then anything could happen. The appointment of Frenchman Romain Poite as referee is an interesting one too as both teams have had run-ins with him in Europe this season.

Either way let's hope both sets of fans get behind their teams but respect each other and we're not inundated with message board postings about how bad either group's behaviour was. We don't want any more pious drivel in the media about how we're on the road to segregation at these matches. Nobody condones bad behaviour by the minority of idiots on both sides but giving these fools publicity only serves to increase the negativity surrounding the fixture. Media hacks with an agenda seize on these stories and report them as fact, often without any attempt to corroborate them. So if someone is misbehaving please alert a steward at the time, rather than storing up the anger and venting on the internet, cause it just makes us all look bad.

Support your team passionately and enjoy the banter and then shake hands and have a pint together. It's the only place in Ireland you'll get one in a pub tomorrow!

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Paul Warwick
15 Rob Kearney
Doug Howlett
14 Girvan Dempsey
Lifeimi Mafi 13 Fergus McFadden
Jean de Villiers
12 Gordon D'Arcy
Ian Dowling
11 Isa Nacewa
Ronan O'Gara (C)
10 Jonathan Sexton
Tomas O'Leary
9 Eoin Reddan

Marcus Horan
1 Stan Wright
Jerry Flannery
2 John Fogarty
John Hayes
3 CJ van der Linde
Donncha O'Callaghan
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Mick O'Driscoll
5 Devin Toner
Alan Quinlan
6 Nathan Hines
Niall Ronan
7 Shane Jennings
David Wallace
8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Denis Fogarty
16 Bernard Jackman
Tony Buckley
17 Cian Healy
Nick Williams
18 Malcolm O'Kelly
James Coughlan
19 Stephen Keogh
Peter Stringer
20 Paul O'Donohue
Scott Deasy
21 Shaun Berne
Tom Gleeson
22 Eoin O'Malley
Not Considered
due to Injury

Luke Fitzgerald
Sean O'Brien
Ian McKinley
Shane Horgan
Brian O'Driscoll
Kevin McLaughlin
Match Officials Referee: Romain Poite (FFR)
Assistant Referees: Colin Stanley (IRFU), Richard Kerr (IRFU)
TMO: Brian Fitzgerald (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2010-04-01