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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Rabodirect Pro12 Round 5,
Thomond Park, Limerick,
Saturday, 6th October 2013, 18:45

Television: Live - RTE2

At the moment there are dark clouds hanging above the Heineken Cup and as a consequence, the very future of professional rugby in Ireland. Both Munster and Leinster were huge contributors to the growth and success of the Heineken Cup and though they only played each other twice in the actual tournament both those games were seismic moments in the history of the cup. Those two semi-finals in the old Lansdowne Road in 2006 and Croke Park in 2009 brought club rugby to places no one could have ever believed when the tournament was first launched in the early days of professionalism.

You'd hope that the prospect of destroying the tournament that provided such great days for the game of rugby would give the French and English money-men some pause, but you've probably more chance of convincing a shark to become a vegan at this point. So both teams go into the match knowing that ten years from now we could be back at Donnybrook or Musgrave Park in front of 500 people watching amateur players wear the blue and red jerseys while Ireland's few remaining professional players make their living in France. We may all look back on these great days of watching world-class players in front of massive crowds as a brief golden age of Irish provincial rugby so let's enjoy it while we can, eh?

After the first four rounds of the Pro12 Munster and Leinster are in third and fourth place respectively, separated by only one point. It's probably fair to say neither team is entirely happy with their current form though. Given they'd played the two Italian teams, plus the poorest team from Scotland and Wales, Munster will be disappointed to not have four wins under the belt by now. True, losing to Treviso away is no disgrace these days, but Munster had a commanding lead that they managed to squander mainly through very poor discipline.

Leinster have certainly faced tougher opposition in their first four games and 13 points is a decent haul from facing Scarlets, Cardiff and the current top two in Glasgow and Ospreys. Yet they'll still be annoyed at the quality of some of the performances, especially away to Glasgow. Last week they ultimately gained a bonus point win over Cardiff, but it was another very sloppy performance. There were some great moments, especially from the returning Brian O'Driscoll, but the finishing and tackling were poor on several occasions. Most worrying though was another substandard performance at the breakdown for the third game running. The Clermont-bound Jonno Gibbes has turned the breakdown around in a week before and he needs to work his brutal magic again.

It's all change for Munster from last week as they make 12 personnel changes in total with only Simon Zebo and skipper Peter O'Mahony retaining the same jersey from the Dragons match and Keith Earls moving to the wing. The Ireland second-row partnership of Donncha Ryan and Paul O'Connell makes its first combined start of the season, while O'Mahony partners Niall Ronan and James Coughlan in the back row. There's an all-new front row of Dave Kilcoyne, Mike Sherry and Stephen Archer, but Munster will also be glad to have their South African tighthead B.J. Botha back from injury to take a place on the bench alongside in-form loosehead James Cronin.

In the backs Duncan Williams is somewhat surprisingly preferred to Cathal Sheridan at scrum-half, although they do have Conor Murray to spring from the bench. Williams is partnered by Ian Keatley, his greater experience getting him the nod ahead of the exciting JJ Hanrahan for now. The established midfield pairing of James Downey and Casey Laulala is back, which means Keith Earls moves to the right wing in place of former Leinster winger Andrew Conway, who is dropped from the squad entirely. There's better news for another former Leinster player in Felix Jones, who is fit enough to be named at full back, and Simon Zebo completes the back three on the left wing. Murray and the injured Tommy O'Donnell apart, it looks pretty much like their first-choice Heineken Cup side.

For Leinster the good news is that Sean O'Brien is back but the bad news is that Brian O'Driscoll is out. O'Driscoll is supposedly out with a "minor calf strain" but you'd suspect that the management are just being extra careful with him with two big Heineken Cup games coming up. He's replaced at outside centre by Lote Tuqiri in one of seven changes to the team that started last week. Tuqiri is partnered by the returning Gordon D'Arcy in a new-look centre pairing. The back three of Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney remains the same but Eoin Reddan gets the nod at scrum-half to partner Ian Madigan.

In the front row Mike Ross replaces Martin Moore at tighthead with Cian Healy and Sean Cronin retaining their places. Mike McCarthy comes in for Quinn Roux to partner Devin Toner in the second row. And in the back row Kevin McLaughlin and Sean O'Brien come in on the flanks with Jamie Heaslip continuing to skipper the team from number eight. There's plenty of potential impact from the bench too which features Luke Fitzgerald for their first time since the season opener against the Scarlets.

Leinster have won the last four meetings between the two teams, and nine of the last eleven meetings overall. Even though the recent games have been low on the frenzy of old, Munster will still be heartily sick of that record. None of those last four wins by Leinster were decided by more than ten points however so it's not like they haven't been competitive.

Leinster probably have the better side on paper but Munster are probably due a win at this stage and they could just edge this one. Supporters from both teams will just hope that Romain Poite, the Inspector Clouseau of referees, doesn't ruin the game too much.

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Felix Jones 15 Rob Kearney
Keith Earls 14 Fergus McFadden
Casey Laulala 13 Lote Tuqiri
James Downey 12 Gordon D'Arcy
Simon Zebo 11 Dave Kearney
Ian Keatley 10 Ian Madigan
Duncan Williams 9 Eoin Reddan

Dave Kilcoyne 1 Cian Healy
Mike Sherry 2 Sean Cronin
Stephen Archer 3 Mike Ross
Donncha Ryan 4 Mike McCarthy
Paul O'Connell 5 Devin Toner
Peter O'Mahony (C)
6 Kevin McLaughlin
Niall Ronan 7 Sean O'Brien
James Coughlan 8 Jamie Heaslip (C)

Replacements Damien Varley 16 Aaron Dundon
James Cronin 17 Jack McGrath
B.J. Botha 18 Martin Moore
Donncha O'Callaghan 19 Rhys Ruddock
C.J. Stander 20
Dominic Ryan
Conor Murray 21 Isaac Boss
JJ Hanrahan 22 Jimmy Gopperth
Denis Hurley 23 Luke Fitzgerald

Not Considered
due to Injury
Tommy O'Donnell
Michael Bent,
Andrew Goodman,
Leo Cullen,
Darren Hudson,
Shane Jennings,
Jordi Murphy,
Richardt Strauss,
Brian O'Driscoll
Officials Referee: Romain Poite (FFR),
Assistant Referees: Stuart Gaffikin, Michael Black (both IRFU),
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-10-04