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Munster Rugby vs Leinster Rugby
Guinness Pro12 Round 11
Thomond Park, Limerick,
Monday, 26th December 2016, 17:30

Television: Sky, TG4

Happy Christmas to the literally tens of regular readers of the Leinsterfans match preview! You may be small in number, but your taste is impeccable!

There will be no turkey and mince pies for the Leinster players on the Christmas day however. They'll be preparing for the big match on St. Stephen's Day in Limerick where it's first versus second in the Pro12. The two teams' records this season are almost identical with eight wins, two defeats, 37 points and 34 tries scored each. The difference between the teams and the reason Munster occupy the top spot, is their defence. At almost the halfway point in the league, Munster currently have the best defensive record in the league having only conceded 15 tries and 129 points in their ten games so far. This will cause some discomfort to Leinster as last season their defence was the best in the league. This season it's easily the worst of the top four teams, having conceded a whopping 24 tries already (last season they only conceded 27 tries in the entire regular league season). There's been a lot to be positive about in Leinster's performances so far this term, but in the second half of the season they'll be determined to recapture that defensive meanness.

The top two come into this game in contrasting moods after their results in Europe last weekend. Leinster completed the double over a hapless Northampton side that practically waved the white flag as soon as Jim Mallinder named his team. After an awkward first twenty minutes, Ken Pisi's try shocked Leinster into life and they won the remainder of the game 55-0. With Castres beating Montpellier, Leinster now know a win in their next game over Montpellier will win them the pool. In contrast, Munster went from thrashing Leicester 38-0 at home to losing to a last minute kick over in Welford Road last weekend. Leinster fans shouldn't smirk too much at the massive turnaround though, it's happened to us plenty of times and Munster probably would have taken 6 points from the double-header against the Tigers if offered it at the start. They're still in good shape in Europe and should beat a now completely disinterested Racing team home and away either side of a shoot-out with Glasgow to top the pool. In any case, both teams are in great shape to qualify from their pools which is in stark contrast to this time last season when both teams were effectively out on their arse.

The defeat to Leicester might also serve as a reality check for Munster. The run they've been on since the tragic passing of Anthony Foley maybe led some to believe they had arrived again as a top force. They've definitely improved under the stewardship of Rassie Erasmus, but they're still far from the finished article and last week was a reminder of that. There's no doubting the improvement on last season though as several players like Darren Sweetnam, John Ryan, Jack O'Donoghue and Rory and Niall Scannell have stepped up their games to become serious forces. Tyler Bleyendaal has shrugged off his injuries to show some real class this season and mainstays like Conor Morray, CJ Stander, Peter O'Mahony and Simon Zebo have been in great form. South African Jaco Taute have proven to be an astute temporary replacement for Francis Saili and there's already a public relations campaign for Munster to be allowed keep Taute even though Saili is now fit again. However they're already way over the quota for foreign players with seven in total (and that's omitting Bleyendaal who is considered a project player). Taute has done well but if retaining him harms the development of the excellent Rory Scannell, what's the point of these player quotas again? Especially if the IRFU expect other provinces to abide by them and make do even when they have injuries. You can only cry "make an exception for us" so many times.

The Christmas period is an intense one for Leinster with two games in five days thanks to the Christmas scheduling. With that in mind and with the restrictions on using Ireland plyers, Leo Cullen has juggled his resource and named a team showing 10 changes to last weekend. Man of the match last week, Tadhg Furlong is the only player in the pack to retain his jersey from last week. He's joined by Cian Healy and James Tracy in the front row while Ross Molony and Mike McCarthy. There's an all new back row of Rhys Ruddock, Dan Leavy and Jack Conan but it's still packed with pace and power. There are a further three changes in the backs where Jamison Gibson-Park comes in to partner Ross Byrne at half-back. Zane Kirchner starts again at full back and skipper Isa Nacewa switches over to the right wing to allow Barry Daly start on the left. Rory O'Loughlin, who scored off the bench in both games against Northampton, gets a start in the centre alongside Robbie Henshaw, who is along with Furlong are the only frontline internationals to be selected for this game, from Leinster at least.

It's a different story for Munster though as there are just three changes to the team that started last week with James Cronin and Jean Kleyn coming into the pack and Ronan O'Mahony replacing Keith Earls on the wing. Earls is the only one of their main Irish internationals to miss out so Simon Zebo, Conor Murray, Donncha Ryan, CJ Stander and Peter O'Mahony all start in a very strong lineup. They're also able to call up the fit again Francis Saili off the bench.

Munster will be strong favourites at home in front of a sell-out crowd with a team that's almost full strength. It's a decent Leinster side though, and they'll still give it a lash, especially up front. They're looking to make it four wins in a row against their old rivals. They're up against it but all the pressure will be on Munster, so who knows. Leaving with a bonus point would be no disgrace.

Team Lineups

Munster Rugby

Leinster Rugby
Teams Simon Zebo 15 Zane Kirchner
Darren Sweetnam 14 Isa Nacewa (C)
Jaco Taute 13 Rory O'Loughlin
Rory Scannell 12 Robbie Henshaw
Ronan O'Mahony 11 Barry Daly
Tyler Bleyendaal 10 Ross Byrne
Conor Murray 9 Jamison Gibson-Park

James Cronin 1 Cian Healy
Niall Scannell 2 James Tracy
John Ryan 3 Tadhg Furlong
Jean Kleyn 4 Ross Molony
Donnacha Ryan 5 Mike McCarthy
Peter O'Mahony (C) 6 Rhys Ruddock
Tommy O'Donnell 7 Dan Leavy
CJ Stander 8 Jack Conan

Replacements Rhys Marshall 16 Richardt Strauss
Dave Kilcoyne 17 Peter Dooley
Stephen Archer 18 Michael Bent
Billy Holland 19 Ian Nagle
Jack O'Donoghue 20
Dominic Ryan
Duncan Williams 21 Charlie Rock
Francis Saili 22 Noel Reid
Andrew Conway 23 Tom Daly

Not Considered
Due to Injury
Robin Copeland,
Mark Chisholm,
Duncan Casey,
Mike Sherry,
Cathal Sheridan,
Alex Wootton,
Niall Scannell,
Bill Johnston

Jordi Murphy,
James Ryan,
Mike Ross,
Ian Fitzpatrick,
Fergus McFadden,
Cathal Marsh,
Dave Kearney,
Johnny Sexton,
Joey Carbery,
Rob Kearney
Officials Referee: Nigel Owens

by Jim O'Connor, © 2016-12-24