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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Thomond Park, Limerick,
Saturday, 31st March 2012, 19:30

Television: Live RTE 2

It would have all gone to plan if it wasn't for those pesky Ospreys!

With the return of Leo Cullen and Brian O'Driscoll and the debut of Brad Thorn, the fans packed into the RDS and were in the mood for a party. With Leinster leading 19-6, they looked on their way to a comfortable win, but as before at the RDS the Ospreys hadn't read the script. They stuck at it and sensed blood as Leinster began to wilt in the second half, particularly when they lost both their tighthead props, leaving their scrum badly exposed. In the end they got the benefit of some incompetence by the referee and the TMO, but Leinster shouldn't use that as an excuse, they threw it away and the better team won.

So Leinster's twenty-match unbeaten run comes to an end as Leinster lost at home for a second time this season. Suddenly their comfortable lead at the top of the table has been cut to eight points and a defeat to Munster tomorrow could see that cut to four points or less. Two of Leinster's last three games after Saturday are away to Ulster and the Dragons, two places you don't want to be going to needing a result. If Leinster had won last week, they could have probably afforded to lose to Munster tomorrow, but their surprise defeat has removed a lot of their leeway. So this game now takes on more significance than simply a useful warm-up game for both teams for their Heineken Cup quarter-finals against Cardiff and Ulster respectively.

After struggling in the league in the early part of the season Munster have actually won five of their last six games, their only loss a shock defeat away to Aironi. In that early part of the season they seemed to be more focused on Europe, determined to qualify for the quarter-finals after their failure to do so the previous season. They slogged their way through the group relying on last-minute Ronan O'Gara drop goals to win their first two games, before winning two tight games against the Scarlets. Castres were beaten at home in a scrappy performance to secure qualification but hopes weren't high for their away game against Northampton. They still needed to win to guarantee a home quarter-final and they responded with their best performance of the season to crush the Saints 51-36.

There has been some criticism of their performances along the way but that's harsh especially considering their injury list. They've had to do without Doug Howlett, David Wallace, Denis Leamy and Felix Jones for most of their campaign so far. Jones has come back in the last few games and has looked sharp, Wallace is just only back and still doesn't quite look right, but they won't see Howlett or Leamy again this season. Yet Munster have got on with it and squad men like Niall Ronan (also out for the season now), James Coughlan and Denis Hurley have stepped up to the plate and become key men.

This has been supplemented by the performances of some young bucks and in particular Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo have been outstanding. O'Mahony has fought his way onto the senior Irish squad on the back of several excellent showings right across the backrow. Zebo has scored nine tries in all competitions and while he's not yet the finished article, he has real pace and an ability to make a big play when needed.

Both players are named on the starting team that shows six changes (including one positional) from the team that started against Connacht last week. O'Mahony plus three other Irish internationals in Keith Earls, Donncha O'Callaghan and Ronan O'Gara all come in. O'Gara captains the team in the absence of Paul O'Connell who's still out injured along with Conor Murray and Donncha Ryan. They're also missing young second rows Ian Nagle and Dave Foley but show their depth in the position by still being able to start a duo as experienced as Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll. O'Mahony is named at openside with young Dave O'Callaghan named on the blindside and James Coughlan at number eight. Somewhat surprisingly Marcus Horan is named at loosehead prop ahead of Wian du Preez and after a couple of controversial incidents involving him in last season's Magners League final between the teams, referee Nigel Owens will be keeping a close eye on him around the rucks. Damien Varley and the immense tighthead BJ Botha complete the pack.

In the backs the return of Earls sees Johne Murphy switch back to the right wing in place of Denis Hurley where he'll form a potent back three with Zebo and Felix Jones. Liefeimi Mafi partners Earls in the centre and Tomas O'Leary will be looking to put in a big performance in one of his last big games at Thomond Park before he leaves for London Irish at the end of the season. On paper, with all their injuries, their team is probably weaker than Leinster's, especially on the bench, but Leinster won't be fooled into a false sense of security.

Leinster have made eleven changes (including one positional) from the team that started last week as they welcome back all their Irish internationals into the match-day squad. Rob Kearney is back at full back and he'll hope to continue the excellent form he showed in the Six Nations. His return means Isa Nacewa is moved to the right wing. Gordon D'Arcy is back at inside centre where he partners his old mucker Brian O'Driscoll for the first time since the World Cup. Luke Fitzgerald is retained on the left wing and with his current negotiation difficulties with the IRFU over a new contract, he'd love to put down a reminder of what he can do. Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan come in at half back.

In the forwards only Heinke van der Merwe and Brad Thorn remain from the pack that started the last day. Mike Ross has recovered from the knock that forced him out of the England game early to take his place at tighthead prop and Limerick native Sean Cronin, who's sure to get a warm welcome in his first game in Thomond Park wearing a blue jersey, joins him in the front row. Led by Botha, Munster will go after the Leinster scrum in a big way so it will be a tough test for them. It will be no harm to have Thorn packing down behind them though and he's joined by Devin Toner this week. There's an all new backrow in Kevin McLaughlin, Shane Jennings and Jamie Heaslip who captains the team with Leo Cullen named on the bench. Cian Healy, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Hagan, who's recovered from the painful rib injury that saw him stretchered off last week, join Cullen on the pine. It's a strong line-up, but they know they'll need to hit the ground running quickly in Thomond to have any chance.

Of course the game has been over-shadowed somewhat by the retirement of two massive figures in Irish rugby in the last two weeks, one from each squad. Last week it was Munster hooker Jerry Flannery announcing his retirement after finally admitting defeat in his long battle against various injuries. 'Fla' was a real worker who through pure desire transformed himself from a club player to one of the finest hookers in Europe and both Munster and Ireland will miss him.

This week however it's Leinster's turn to lose a legend in all-time top try scorer Shane Horgan. Since making his debut (typically with a try) against Ulster in 1998 'Shaggy' has been part of the furniture for virtually all of the professional era in Leinster. He scored 71 tries in 207 games for us, and ironically it was in this fixture last season that he became the first Leinster player to reach the double century mark in appearances.

His tries were only part of his story though. He started as a big inside centre but converted to the wing where his height and fielding skills were put to better use. His work chasing down restarts alone made him worth his place. He showed his character by reacting to losing his Ireland spot by becoming a major leader in the Leinster dressing room, inspiring the youngsters he was playing with while the internationals were away.

He's provided us with so many great memories down the years that there's too many to mention but he'll always be one of the foundation stones of the story of the success of Leinster. Thanks for all the great moments, Shaggy, it won't be half as much fun without you.

Hopefully the Leinster squad will be inspired by watching some of Horgan's many tries against Munster down the years and will turn up ready to put in a winning performance. It's always tough winning down in Thomond Park but Leinster won there two seasons ago and only lost to a last minute kick last season. That was the game Leinster were 20-9 up at half-time and really should have won. The annoyance at the way they threw it away should also provide some good motivation.

Despite their injury worries, Munster will be strong favourites but Leinster won't want to go into next week's game on the back of two defeats in a row and just might surprise a few people this weekend.

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Felix Jones 15 Rob Kearney
Johne Murphy 14 Isa Nacewa
Keith Earls 13 Brian O'Driscoll
Liefeimi Mafi 12 Gordon D'Arcy
Simon Zebo 11 Luke Fitzgerald
Ronan O'Gara (C)
10 Jonathan Sexton
Tomas O'Leary 9 Eoin Reddan

Marcus Horan 1 Heinke van der Merwe
Damien Varley 2 Sean Cronin
BJ Botha 3 Mike Ross
Donncha O'Callaghan 4 Brad Thorn
Mick O'Driscoll 5 Devin Toner
Dave O'Callaghan 6 Kevin McLaughlin
Peter O'Mahony 7 Shane Jennings
James Coughlan 8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Mike Sherry 16 Richardt Strauss
Wian du Preez 17 Cian Healy
Stephen Archer 18 Jamie Hagan
Billy Holland 19 Leo Cullen
Tommy O'Donnell 20 Sean O'Brien
Duncan Williams 21 Isaac Boss
Ian Keatley 22 Ian Madigan
Danny Barnes 23 Fergus McFadden

Not Considered
due to Injury
Paul O'Connell,
Conor Murray,
Donncha Ryan,
Ian Nagle,
Dave Foley,
Doug Howlett,
Niall Ronan,
Denis Leamy,
David Wallace

Eamonn Sheridan,
Ben Marshall,
Ciaran Ruddock,
Nathan White
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU),
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Michael Black (IRFU),
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2012-03-30