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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Thomond Park, Limerick
Saturday, 2nd April 2011, 19:30

Television: Live RTE 2

For the third season in a row, in a fixture specifically requested by the IRFU, Leinster and Munster meet in April, the week before the knock-out stages of European competition commence. It's a savvy piece of scheduling by the blazers, as this match is the closest thing the Magners League has to offer in terms of European intensity. Both teams have done well out of the arrangement in the last two seasons, both winning their respective quarter-finals the following week; Munster beating Ospreys and Northamption, Leinster beating Harlequins and Clermont.

This year things are slightly different though as while Leinster face Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final next Saturday at the Aviva, Munster find themselves in the unfamiliar confines of the Amlin Challenge Cup facing a trip to Brive. There's no denying that failing to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals for the first time in thirteen years wounded Munster deeply. They were in a tough group and it was no disgrace that they couldn't get out of it, but Munster's players and supporters had grown so used to qualifying that it's put a cloud on their season.

Munster had created high standards for themselves, the type of standards that yielded two Heineken Cups, so it's hard to know how they'll react to competing for what is essentially the Europa League of rugby. You'd expect them to put on a professional face and go out and beat a very ordinary Brive team, however if they were to lose, it's doubtful we'll see any tears in the stands from their fans.

So you'd have to think that the Magners League is their real target this season. In terms of results they're the runaway leaders with fifteen wins from eighteen games, giving them a twelve point cushion from second placed Leinster and all but guaranteeing them first place in the table. That first place slot will ensure them home advantage for both the semi-final and final if they get there and it's only fitting reward for their consistency.

Munster actually did Leinster a favour last weekend by beating Cardiff away. That, plus the Ospreys' unexpected defeat away to Edinburgh, made Leinster's scrappy win in Newport all the more important. It's revived Leinster's campaign to finish in second place and get a home semi-final for themselves. To do that though, they will almost certainly need to win tomorrow evening. So, from a league standpoint, Leinster's need for a win is greater but from an emotional standpoint Munster badly need to beat Leinster.

Of their three defeats in the league this season, the first was to Leinster in the Aviva stadium. That made it five defeats in a row to their biggest rivals, a run that extends back two years to the Heineken Cup semi-final in Croke Park. Of those five defeats, you sense the one that hurt the most was the Good Friday defeat at Thomond Park. Munster simply don't lose games there, especially not to Leinster, so that 16-15 defeat will still smart with the players and the fans alike.

Though they just about deserved their win that night, Leinster did have their share of luck, especially with the bounce of the ball which went straight into Rob Kearney's hands for the only try of the match. The abiding memory of the game though was the sense of calmness in the Leinster defence as Munster came at them late in the game. Leinster simply made their tackles and rolled away and got up and did it again. Truth be told, Munster never really looked like crossing Leinster's line. Munster losing five in a row to Leinster is bad enough but to be held tryless in all those games only adds insult to injury.

Munster know that if they are to beat Leinster, they can't rely on just beasting them up front and Ronan O'Gara kicking his points like in the old days. The days of Leinster packs being bullied by Munster are over and in recent years the blue eight has got on top in terms of competing at the set-piece and the breakdown. Even with Paul O'Connell back, they know the best they can probably hope for is parity so they'll need to find a way to break down that Leinster defence out wide.

Munster have re-jigged their backline and against Cardiff, there was glimpses of it working. Former Leinster academy player Felix Jones has had a nightmare two years with injury but he's back now and he gives Munster a new dimension at full back. Keith Earls is full of confidence after a Six Nations campaign in which he steadily improved and he looked in great form last weekend. Doug Howlett on the other wing is a peerless finisher and as a trio they look very dangerous. Whether Munster will be able to get quality ball to them is another question however.

A lot will depend on young scrum-half Conor Murray, who's picked ahead of veteran Peter Stringer. Murray has only made a handful of appearances but he looks a real prospect. He's a big lad and has decent pace, a quick accurate pass and a good match temperament. This game will be a big step-up for him but he could just be up to the challenge and in any case, it's refreshing to see Munster give youth a chance in a big game. He has the perfect half-back partner in the massively experienced O'Gara, who once again will be looking to prove a point against Jonny Sexton, his arch rival for the Ireland out-half jersey and new best buddy (if the spin from the Ireland camp is to be believed anyway!).

Midfield has been a problem area for Munster this season. Sam Tuitupou and Liefemi Mafi were tried together but they were considered too similar in style and it didn't really work. Keith Earls, Ivan Dineen, Barry Murphy, Paul Warwick and Tom Gleeson have all played there too but no one really nailed the position down. Tony McGahan has gone back to Mafi and Johne Murphy, who played there quite a bit at the start of the season. Murphy is a good solid pro, but it remains to be seen if he has the guile to unlock a defence as good as Leinster's.

In the pack the front five sees only one change from last week with Donncha O'Callaghan back alongside O'Connell in the engine room. Despite having virtually no rugby under his belt for nine months O'Connell improved steadily during the Six Nations and looked back to his best against England. Tony Buckley, who's departing at the end of the season, is at tight-head with Wian Du Preez at loosehead and Damien Varley at hooker. Buckley is a huge man but his problems in the scrum are well documented and Leinster will look to target him there. Varley is a good mobile hooker but his throwing can struggle if put under pressure.

Somewhat surprisingly, there is no place for Denis Leamy in the backrow with James Coughlan retained at number eight and second row Donncha Ryan and David Wallace brought in on the flanks. Wallace was in excellent form in the Six Nations and he'll look forward to going head to head with his Ireland backrow partners Jamie Heaslip and especially Sean O'Brien. Ryan is included presumably to add another lineout option, but it's a brave call by Tony McGahan to leave out Leamy, who has captained Munster for most of the season in O'Connell's absence. Overall it's a strong Munster team with a hint of the unknown in one or two of the selections.

The big thing for Munster is their discipline though which has been their Achilles heal this season. In both Magners and Heineken Cup, they've incurred 19 yellow cards, one red card and have had two players cited and banned. One of those bans was for Liefemi Mafi for an incident with Gordon D'Arcy in the match earlier in the season in the Aviva. For Munster to have any chance of beating Leinster they'll need to keep their self control.

For Leinster the big news is the selection of Shane Horgan on the right wing for his 200th Leinster appearance. He's the first Leinster play to reach that landmark and it's fitting that it goes to 'Shaggy', who's been slogging away since making his debut in 1998. In those days he was an inside centre but when he made his international debut in 2000 in the number 14 jersey, the dye was cast and he would become the 'big fella on the wing'. There he used his bulk no doubt, but also his rugby intelligence and his gaelic football skills which made him an extra weapon for restarts. He's had his ups and downs with injuries and no doubt losing his starting spot for Ireland to Tommy Bowe has hurt him.

The way he responded was a measure of the man though, taking a leadership role amongst the younger players in Leinster games he would have normally been rested for. He's been dropped a couple of times for Leinster, most memorably for the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins, but each time he's fought hard to get his place back and his form this season was as good as ever until he picked up that knee injury against Racing Metro. The timing of that injury was especially cruel, as with Tommy Bowe out injured, it cost him an Ireland recall. However he's back now and after shaking off the rust with a useful sixty minutes against the Dragons, he'll be looking to get on the score-sheet against Munster, a team he's made a habit of scoring tries against.

Horgan takes his place in an unchanged back three with Isa Nacewa and Luke Fitzgerald. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy return to the centres but Isaac Boss retains the scrum-half starting spot alongside Jonny Sexton, meaning Eoin Reddan has to be content with a place on the bench. In the pack Ireland internationals Cian Healy, Mike Ross, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O'Brien all start and Nathan Hines moves up from the bench so only Richardt Strauss, Leo Cullen and Kevin McLaughlin retain their starting jerseys from the Dragons match.

Shane Jennings has still not recovered from injury so O'Brien plays at openside flanker for the first time since the Munster match in the Aviva. McLaughlin gets the nod at blindside ahead of Rhys Ruddock and Dominic Ryan, who's unfortunate to be left out of the squad altogether. The fact that he's another lineout option plus the memory of his work at the breakdown in the two wins at the RDS last season probably got McLaughlin the nod. It's a particularly strong Leinster bench with Reddan, Ruddock, Stan Wright, Heinke van der Merwe and Fergus McFadden all sure to make an impact when they come on.

Going to Munster is never easy and Leinster will have the utmost respect for their hosts. However the fear factor that once accompanied such a trip is pretty much gone. In their last three trips to Munster, they've won twice. In the last nine meetings in all competitions against Munster, they've won seven. Leinster have simply grown used to beating Munster and they now have a successful template to do it. The template involves being ultra-physical but also very disciplined at the breakdown and in defence. It requires disrupting their set-piece and never letting them settle into their patterns. And most importantly it requires them to be ruthless when they get chances out wide. They will take the field knowing that they don't have to re-invent the wheel to beat Munster, they just have to repeat what they did the last time. That will give them great confidence even with the noise of Thomond Park in their ears. It's up to Munster to come up with something different to beat it this time.

From a rational point of view, Leinster will have to be favourites but there's always the emotional factor to consider with Munster. If O'Connell can use his famous oratory skills to get Munster going then they could break the losing streak. It will be a tight game as usual, but you get the feeling that Leinster can do it again.

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Felix Jones
15 Isa Nacewa
Doug Howlett
14 Shane Horgan
Johne Murphy
13 Brian O'Driscoll
Liefeimi Mafi
12 Gordon D'Arcy
Keith Earls
11 Luke Fitzgerald
Ronan O'Gara
10 Jonathan Sexton
Conor Murray
9 Isaac Boss

Wian du Preez
1 Cian Healy
Damien Varley
2 Richardt Strauss
Tony Buckley
3 Mike Ross
Donncha O'Callaghan
4 Leo Cullen (C)
Paul O'Connell (C)
5 Nathan Hines
Donncha Ryan
6 Kevin McLaughlin
David Wallace
7 Sean O'Brien
James Coughlan
8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Mike Sherry
16 Aaron Dundon
Marcus Horan
17 Heinke van der Merwe
John Hayes
18 Stan Wright
Mick O'Driscoll
19 Devin Toner
Denis Leamy
20 Rhys Ruddock
Peter Stringer
21 Eoin Reddan
Paul Warwick
22 Ian Madigan
Sam Tuitupoy
23 Fergus McFadden

Not Considered
due to Injury
Jerry Flannery,
Denis Fogarty,
Ian Dowling,
Barry Murphy,
Dave Foley,
Tomas O'Leary,
Tom Gleeson,
Dave Ryan

Rob Kearney,
Shaun Berne,
Shane Jennings,
Stephen Keogh,
Andrew Conway
Officials Referee: Andrew small (RFU, 7th league game)
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, R Kerr (both IRFU)
TMO: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2011-04-01