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Leinster Rugby vs Munster Rugby
Rabodirect Pro 12 Round 18
Lansdowne Road, Dublin,
Saturday, 29th March 2014, 19:00

Television: Live - TG4

The Leinster-Munster inter-pro has been a little taken for granted in recent years. The last few games haven't sold out, either at the Aviva stadium or Thomond Park, and the atmosphere has struggled to match the fervent passion of earlier days. However a couple of factors have come together to make tomorrow's match one of the most hotly anticipated in years.

First off, there's the matter of the league game on its own merits with first against seond. After Munster led the league for most of the season, a slip-up against the Scarlets let Leinster reclaim top spot. From looking absolute certainties to have a home semi-final at the very least Munster now face the prospect of seeing Ulster overtake them in second if they lose tomorrow night. Leinster need the win too however to keep their momentum going with a winning streak stretching back nine games to the defeat in Edinburgh just before Christmas. A defeat would undo all the good work the squad did during the Six Nations and leave Leinster struggling to make the top two, especially with tricky trips to the Ospreys and Ulster coming up.

Speaking of the Six Nations championship, this is the real reason the game has been receiving so much media attention this week. Former Munster player Denis Leamy stoked the debate a few weeks ago, openly accusing Ireland coach Joe Schmidt of being biased against Munster players. Of course some Munster players who would have featured, like Donncha Ryan and Keith Earls, suffered untimely injuries and one or two others lost out on tight calls but nowhere near as many as Leamy and the tinfoil-hat brigade would have you believe. Suggesting a coach as smart and ultra-professional as Schmidt would limit his options as to who he will pick is of course paranoid nonsense. But making Schmidt a hate figure is perhaps easier for some people than being honest about their own players' actual ability.

Outgoing Munster coach Rob Penney has further stoked up the controversy by repeatedly describing the match as "Munster versus the Six Nations Champions". This was of course, a reference to the two provinces representation in the match-squad for the recent championship triumph, fifteen from Leinster and three from Munster. It was a strange comment to make, especially as it seemed to dismiss the massive contribution his own three players, Paul O'Connell, Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray, made to the successful campaign.

To add to the confusion Penney then seemed to contradict his own comments when extolling his players "not to get caught up in individual battles", precisely the type of thing he seemed to be asking them to do. Penney is off to coach in Japan at the end of the season after the Munster branch would only offer him a one-year contract extension before handing the job off to Anthony Foley. The Munster branch were criticised in some quarters when this was announced back in January but given Penney's recent media pronouncements, perhaps it makes a bit more sense.

To be fair to Penney, Munster have definitely improved on their often shambolic league form from last season. They've returned to the consistency they displayed the last time they won the league in 2011. Penney's gameplan was heavily criticised by both fans and the media last season. This season it seems to be working better even if it's more of a hybrid incorporating more of Munster's traditional strengths such as the maul and pick and drive game. The next two weeks will be the proof though as to how far they've really come as they welcome Toulouse next week in a Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Penney has picked a team that shows ten changes from the side that struggled to an unconvincing win over Treviso last week. Simon Zebo comes back onto the left wing to join Felix Jones and Keith Earls in a potent back three. There's a big call in the centre with Denis Hurley picked ahead of James Downey to partner Casey Laulala. Hurley would be better known as a full back or wing, but he's been tried at twelve with some success this season, although this will certainly be his toughest test to date. Ian Keatley, man of the match when Munster beat Leinster earlier in the season is back in the number ten jersey and he'll partner Conor Murray, who's in cracking form at the moment.

In the pack Dave Kilcoyne and BJ Botha come into the front row alongside hooker Damien Varley. With Donncha Ryan sadly injured again, Dave Foley, who's probably Munster's most improved player this season, gets the nod to partner Paul O'Connell in the second row. Skipper Peter O'Mahony comes back into the backrow alongside Tommy O'Donnell and James Coughlan. It's a very strong looking pack and they'll have a real crack at Leinster, especially in the set pieces.

For Leinster it's been a worrisome week, especially with all the injuries to the props. Those fears have sadly been realised and Leinster have to make do without Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Cian Healy and Tadgh Furlong. So there's a lot of pressure of Michael Bent as he'll start at loosehead and also have to cover tighthead if Mike Ross has to leave the action as there are two looseheads in Jack O'Connell and Ed Byrne on the bench. Richardt Strauss is fit to start at hooker with Sean Cronin on the bench.

In the second row Devin Toner returns to reclaim his jersey after an excellent Six Nations campaign which proved his many doubters wrong. He slots in beside Mike McCarthy and Jamie Heaslip and Shane Jennings come in alongside Kevin McLaughlin in the back row. Heaslip captains the team and his breakdown battle with Ireland colleague O'Mahony will be fascinating to watch.

In the back three, Dave Kearney's injury spares Matt O'Connor a very awkward decision as to who to drop. Rob Kearney comes back in at full back and Fergus McFadden moves to the wing from the centre. Luke Fitzgerald is retained on the left wing after his man of the match display last week. Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy return in the centre and though this may well be the last time O'Driscoll plays at the Aviva stadium, you know he will be far more focused on getting what could well be a final win against Munster. Ian Madigan gets the nod over Jimmy Gopperth at ten and he partners Eoin Reddan, another scrum-half in excellent form.

Leinster had a great run of 8 consecutive wins at the Aviva from when the re-developed stadium first opened. However they've now lost their last two games there, both very costly defeats against Clermont and Northampton. There has been talk that Leinster will have an advantage through a lot of their squad being battle-hardened from the Six Nations. That can cut both ways though as they could also be more fatigued and certainly the Munster players have played together as a unit a lot more in recent games.

As ever it's a hard game to call, but hopefully Leinster can survive in the scrum and provide some good ball for a very dangerous backline. If they can do that they can get a win that will set them up perfectly for the trip to Toulon next week.

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby

Teams Rob Kearney 15 Felix Jones
Fergus McFadden 14 Keith Earls
Brian O'Driscoll 13 Casey Laulala
Gordon D'Arcy 12 Denis Hurley
Luke Fitzgerald
11 Simon Zebo
Ian Madigan 10 Ian Keatley
Eoin Reddan 9 Conor Murray

Michael Bent 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Richardt Strauss 2 Damien Varley
Mike Ross 3 B.J. Botha
Devin Toner 4 Dave Foley
Mike McCarthy
5 Paul O'Connell
Kevin McLaughlin 6 Peter O'Mahony (C)
Shane Jennings 7 Tommy O'Donnell
Jamie Heaslip (C)
8 James Coughlan

Replacements Sean Cronin 16 Duncan Casey
Jack O'Connell 17 James Cronin
Ed Byrne 18 Alan Cotter
Leo Cullen
19 Donncha O'Callaghan
Jordi Murphy 20
C.J. Stander
Isaac Boss
21 Duncan Williams
Jimmy Gopperth 22 JJ Hanrahan
Zane Kirchner 23 Gerhard van den Heever

Not Considered
due to Injury
Sean O'Brien,
Andrew Goodman,
Jack McGrath,
Martin Moore,
Tadgh Furlong,
Cian Healy,
Rhys Ruddock,
David Kearney

Mike Sherry,
Cathal Sheridan,
Niall Ronan,
John Ryan,
Donncha Ryan,
Stephen Archer
Officials Referee: Alain Rolland
Assistant Referees: David Wilkinson, Michael Black (both IRFU)
Citing Commissioner: Peter Ferguson (IRFU)
TMO: Simon McDowell (IRFU)

by Jim O'Connor, © 2014-03-28