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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Thomond Park, Limerick,
Saturday, 13th April 2013, 18:30

Television: Live - RTE2

It was all going so well.

After Leinster beat Glasgow three weeks ago, they moved to the top of the table for the first time this season. A win over struggling Ulster in the RDS, where they'd been undefeated all season, and Leinster would be in a very strong position to top the table and ensure they were at home for the play-offs. Unfortunately Ulster hadn't read the script and they tore into Leinster's weak defensive line with abandon. Though they had to survive a siege on their line at the end, Ulster certainly deserved their win.

Ulster now look favourites to finish top, a position they held for so much of the season, on the basis of their relatively easier run-in and the fact that they have no more European distractions. After losing to Saracens in Twickenham, they will be determined to salvage something from a season that once promised so much and a Grand Final in Ravenhill would do nicely in that regard. Ulster are currently a point behind current leaders Glasgow who have the toughest run-in of anyone with games away to Scarlets and Connacht and home to Ospreys. That being said, they are the form team in the league and their six-try demolition of Munster in the last round was impressively clinical.

Leinster now find themselves back in third place, still only three points behind the leaders but struggling for form and facing two tricky away games and a final round home match against the Ospreys, a team they haven't beaten in their last four meetings. The knock-on effect of all this is that the match against Munster has gone from being a "nice-to-win" game to a "must-win" game. Victories in Thomond Park are never easily achieved, although Leinster will take heart from having won there in two of their last four visits.

Like Leinster, Munster will reflect on the massive difference one game can make. The afore-mentioned defeat to Glasgow two weeks ago led to some serious soul-searching amongst the squad and the fans. It was the first time Munster had conceded over 50 points in a match since Cardiff hammered them in 2004 in the aftermath of their Heineken Cup semi-final defeat to Wasps. The loss in Scotstoun meant they had only won two out of their seven league games in 2013 and it effectively ended their hopes of making the top four for the play-offs.

With an away Heineken Cup quarter-final against Harlequins coming up, many feared humiliation. However that ignored the fact that Harlequins had been in poor form themselves, losing their last three league games, their relatively small playing squad finally catching up with them after over-achieving for the last two years. When the teams were released on Friday, it became apparent that there wasn't that much of a difference between the two teams in terms of the quality of personnel.

Still, it's never easy to win an away quarter-final, especially coming off a 50-point hammering, and Munster deserve great credit for the way they tore into Harlequins with unrelenting physicality and aggression. The totemic Paul O'Connell led the way with an amazing performance and he had eager lieutenants in Peter O'Mahony and Tommy O'Donnell. They reduced the Quins lineout to a quivering wreck and completely stilted their attack by destroying them at the breakdown. In terms of attack the lateral side-to-side tactics were abandoned and when their backs ran, they ran hard and straight with their centres James Downey and Casey Laulala both having easily their best games in the red jersey.

There is a temptation now though, especially in the media, to declare that all is right in the Munster universe again and that the win fixed all their problems. Wiser Munster fans will realise though that one great performance doesn't make all the previous poor performances cease to exist. Their simplified gameplan worked well on the day, but they still didn't score a try or indeed look close to scoring one. That was enough to beat Quins, but it's unlikely to work against better teams like Clermont, who they'll meet in the semi-finals.

Clermont were once seen as the bottlers of Europe but the team Leinster faced in two brutally tough pool matches this season seems to have matured. They have a new patience about them and seem less likely to panic when things go wrong. Leinster put it up to them in the pack in the away fixture and probably deserved a draw at least, but Clermont still dug out a win. The week after they arrived at the Aviva and demolished Leinster far more than the 28-21 scoreline would suggest. Like the great Toulouse sides, they seem to be happy to beat teams anyway they need to; either grinding them down with their big, grizzled pack or cutting them to ribbons out wide with their many brilliant strike runners.

With the semi-final being played in France, Clermont will be massive favourites and Munster will happily embrace the under-dog tag. They will take some hope from Leinster going to France last season and beating them in a semi-final, but to do that Leinster needed a marvellous moment of handling skill to open up the Clermont defence for Cian Healy's try. Munster's back to basics gameplan may struggle to come up with such a moment.

Before that though, Munster will look to continue the feel-good factor with a home win over Leinster. As they're eleven points off the play-off places, a Scarlets win over Glasgow tonight would seal Munster's fate officially. But with a Heineken Cup semi-final to look forward to while Leinster slum it in the Amlin, Munster fans won't be feeling too bad about themselves in the pubs and bars before and after no matter what the result of the match is.

After having two days less recovery than Leinster and having played in a far more physically intense game, Munster will probably be fatigued alright. But there's nothing like the sight of blue jerseys in Thomond to get Munster going and they'll know that they can be rested in their two remaining league games afterwards, which will be effectively meaningless. And they certainly won't want Leinster's winning streak over them to extend to four games!

So Munster will look to throw everything at Leinster tonight and then focus entirely on their semi-final against Clermont. To that end, their much-maligned coach Rob Penney has named a strong team

There are only four changes to the Munster team which started last week. Donncha Ryan is given a chance to rest his troublesome shoulder so Donncha O'Callaghan comes in to partner Paul O'Connell in the second row. The other changes in the pack are in the front row where Stephen Archer and Damien Varley come in for BJ Botha and Mike Sherry respectively. Perhaps the most noticeable change comes in the backline where Ian Keatley is given the nod over Ronan O'Gara, who is omitted from the squad.

For Leinster the priority is to put in a proper 80 minute-performance, something they've rarely if ever done this season. Their early season defensive problems have returned with a vengeance and they've now conceded ten tries in their last four games. Bafflingly they seem to be running a very passive drift defence and this is being increasingly exposed. In that respect, the return from suspension of Brian O'Driscoll is massive as he doesn't know how to run anything except a hard, fast-up defence. He returns to partner Gordon D'Arcy in midfield in place of the injured Fergus McFadden. Jonny Sexton is still not considered fully fit so Ian Madigan keeps his place and will hope to add to the 68 points he has scored in his last three games.

There are three changes to the pack where Shane Jennings comes in at openside and Sean O'Brien moves across to take Kevin McLaughlin's place at blindside flank. Sean Cronin and Quinn Roux come in to start in the front five in place of Richardt Strauss and Devin Toner who drop to the bench.

Of all the recent derbies, this is probably the hardest one to call. Munster will certainly be motivated but will they have the legs? In terms of the competition itself Leinster certainly need the win more but can they find their best form and most importantly, stop leaking soft tries? It will also be interesting to see how the Keatley versus Madigan match-up goes after years of these clashes being defined by Sexton v O'Gara battles. In the end, Leinster's greater need and the return of O'Driscoll may just swing it for them, but it will be as tight as ever.

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Felix Jones 15 Rob Kearney
Denis Hurley 14 Dave Kearney
Casey Laulala 13 Brian O'Driscoll
James Downey12 Gordon D'Arcy
Simon Zebo 11 Isa Nacewa
Ian Keatley 10 Ian Madigan
Conor Murray 9 Isaac Boss

David Kilcoyne 1 Cian Healy
Damien Varley 2 Sean Cronin
Stephen Archer 3 Mike Ross
Donncha O'Callaghan 4 Leo Cullen (C)
Paul O'Connell(C) 5 Quinn Roux
Peter O'Mahony 6 Sean O'Brien
Tommy O'Donnell 7 Shane Jennings
James Coughlan 8 Jamie Heaslip

Replacements Mike Sherry 16 Richardt Strauss
James Cronin 17 Jack McGrath
BJ Botha 18 Michael Bent
Billy Holland 19 Devin Toner
Dave O'Callaghan 20 Kevin McLaughlin
Cathal Sheridan 21 John Cooney
JJ Hanrahan 22 Andrew Goodman
Ivan Dineen23 Andrew Conway
Not considered
due to injury
Keith Earls,
Doug Howlett,
Sean Dougall,
Luke O'Dea
  Adam Byrne,
Edward Byrne,
Jordan Coghlan,
Jack Conan,
Dan Leavy,
Conor Gilsenan,
David Doyle,
Tadgh Furlong,
Josh van der Flier,
Darren Hudson,
Jordi Murphy,
Damien Browne,
Eoin Reddan,
Luke Fitzgerald,
Eoin O'Malley,
Brendan Macken,
Jonathan Sexton,
Heinke van der Merwe,
Dominic Ryan,
Fergus McFadden
 
Match Officials Referee: Nigel Owens (WRU),
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Jonathan Peak (both IRFU),
TMO: Jude Quinn (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2013-04-12

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