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Leinster Rugby vs Munster Rugby
Royal Dublin Showground
Sunday, 28th September 2008, 19:00

Television: Live Setanta 1
Season Ticket: Magners League Three - Picture of Phil Orr

There is no doubt Leinster Rugby loves days like this. It won't be long before Van Morrisson is asked to perform on the half way line as the stadium announcer reads out the teams. Great pleasure was taken in hijacking the official site last Monday, loudly boasting the game was "sold out". Leinster versus Munster is big league now. The 18,500 people will make this the most viewed game anywhere in home nations (excluding the Twickenham scramble) so far this season.

Before we look at the contest ahead, spare a momentary thought for the organisations still campaigning for the banning of alcoholic advertisements in Ireland, who were sent sprawling to the canvas Amir Khan-style once the national media had cleared down another forest to preview this game. The Magners League champions versus the Heineken Cup winners - has a slightly better ring to it than the Kit-Kat Celtic League or the TK European Cup, or whatever they'll be called soon.

Players and management must have been treated to Will Green's keen understanding of cricket during his stay, as one-by-one they have manfully batted away talk of titles and cups. Chris Whitaker did his best to douse the flames on Thursday. "I think we can make an impression but it's important to look to one game at a time. Munster is the only game on our minds" The man he replaced in the Leinster half back position, Brian O'Riordan, believes a trophy of continental significance will be in the Leinster radar this season.

Mick Dawson, meanwhile, has been peering through the haze of optimism that has blanketed the province in recent times. The goal posts at the RDS are higher than ever before. Staff at Elvery's were spending the summer filling the empty gaps on shelves where once hung a Leinster jersey, and, in rural towns, young kids were given more exposure to their heroes. They say Leinster Rugby stops at the Red Cow? Not any more!

But that's for another time - fans across Ireland are becoming spoilt these days, after first the National Ploughing Championships, and now one of the great days in the rugby calendar. Not everything has gone down well, though!

Setanta's decision to schedule this match on a Sunday evening has been met with obvious derision by all involved. They will feel vindicated by the fact Leinster took no time in announcing the game was sold out, but the global feeling is this game suits at 5:30 pm kick-off on a Saturday. But as one prominent journalist said, the fans are at the bottom of the food chain now. Whitaker believes "the day has no significance for the players, although it does seem strange��big games shouldn't be played on a Sunday".

Not to mention that this fixture has also been dogged by refereeing controversy over the past few seasons, so much so that Wayne Barnes and Chris White were conscripted to keep the general peace last season. The fact that the IRFU and Celtic Rugby had to look outside their borders was partially attributed to the continued Anglo-Welsh tea party, but it was also a serious indictment of the current officiating standards operating within the Celtic rugby nations.

UEFA and FIFA have often utilised their power to have high profile matches refereed by "foreigners" (ever hear of the Scottish man in Egypt?), and the decision by the IRFU to do likewise was a positive step considering the paucity of local options. Why they have reverted to type by bringing in Simon McDowell, the Ulsterman caught in the eye of the 2006 storm, remains unclear. O'Riordan questioned whether McDowell would command the level of respect which would have attributed to Messrs Barnes or White.

Away from the hype and hysteria, both Leinster and Munster named their teams on Friday afternoon. Michael Cheika continued the theme of rotation, making 5 changes from the side which beat the Ospreys last week. New recruits CJ van der Linde and Rocky Elsom take their place in the forwards, with Malcolm O'Kelly and Shane Jennings also returning to the fold. Sean O'Brien, Devin Toner, Cameron Jowitt, and, rather surprisingly, Stan Wright make way. Ronan McCormack gets a reprieve in the front row.

In the backs, Jonathan Sexton returns in the absence of the injured Isa Nacewa, whilst Rob Kearney is the unlucky loser in the game of musical chairs. Shane Horgan is presumably in due to his excellent strike rate when it really counts, but one feels he needs a bigger game more than anyone else. Cheika has considerable fire-power to yield from the bench, notably the aforementioned Kearney, O'Brien and Wright. Cian Healy's demotion to the 'A' side will have surprised the former Belvedere man more than anyone else.

Tony McGahan, for his part, has also made five alternations to the side that beat the Cardiff Blues 28-20 last Saturday. Keith Earls replaces Denis Hurley at full back, who drops out of the squad altogether, and Tomas O'Leary returns as expected at scrum half. In the pack, Marcus Horan, Donncha O'Callaghan and David Wallace are recalled with a modest 152 international caps between them. The Australian coach has also resisted call from certain sections of the Munster crowd to include Paul Warwick from the start, but a bit like Horgan, this seemed almost inevitable. The former Connacht fly-half will bench in another strong replacements list, alongside Alan Quinlan and Freddie Pucciariello.

Earls' performance will be another of great interest to the new Ireland coach Declan Kindey, but where the young man lines up when Munster aren't in possession will be interesting. Part due to the ELVs, and part due to a new approach, Leinster have opted to put boot to ball more often than before. Munster may feel more comfortable shifting Doug Howlett as the last line of defence, especially when the game is still in its early exchanges. A definite area of concern for the visitors though, will be their mysteriously generous line out. Otherwise, they come into this game with a lot of confidence, and the way they have moved through the gears in their last two outings will worry Leinster's excellent defence.

Conflicting reports from a number of websites means players and fans won't know until Sunday what the weather conditions will be like, but it seems a certain amount of rain is inevitable. Some in the media have labelled this the last trial match before the Autumn Internationals, with the second row the most intriguing - the match up between the two men captaining these sides has something epic about it. Discipline will be another factor, enter Mr. McDowell, and the buzzing Munster centres versus the slowly improving duo from the blue corner.

The bookmakers start Leinster at early 4 point favourites, and the nagging feeling remains this is a bigger one for them than Munster. The props need a huge game to stabilise a somewhat shaky scrum, Bernard Jackman must continue his excellent throwing form, and out wide, Felipe Contepomi will have to nail every opportunity that comes his way. It might become factitious and possible low scoring, but if Leinster can keep that water-tight defence in tact, and secure their set piece possession, they should have just enough to scrap through the ultimate nail biter.

Bragging rights and all that!

Team Lineups

Leinster Rugby
Munster Rugby
Teams Girvan Dempsey 15 Keith Earls
Shane Horgan
14 Doug Howlett
Brian O'Driscoll 13 Rua Tipoki
Felipe Contepomi 12 Lifeimi Mafi
Luke Fitzgerald 11 Ian Dowling
Jonathan Sexton
10 Ronan O'Gara
Chris Whitaker
9 Tomas O'Leary

Ronan McCormack
1 Marcus Horan
Bernard Jackman 2 Jerry Flannery
CJ van der Linde
3 John Hayes
Leo Cullen (C)
4 Paul O'Connell (C)
Malcolm O'Kelly
5 Donncha O'Callaghan
Rocky Elsom
6 Donnacha Ryan
Shane Jennings
7 David Wallace
Jamie Heaslip 8 Justin Melck

Replacements Stan Wright
16 Frank Sheahan
John Fogarty
17 Federico Pucciariello
Trevor Hogan
18 John O'Sullivan
Cameron Jowitt
19 Alan Quinlan
Sean O'Brien
20 Peter Stringer
Chris Keane 21 Paul Warwick
Rob Kearney
22 Barry Murphy

Not considered
due to injury
Gordon D'Arcy (arm)

Officials Referee: Simon McDowell (IRFU)
Assistant Referees: Colin Stanley (IRFU), David Wilkinson (IRFU)
TMO: Marshall Kilgore (IRFU)
4th Official: John Carvill (ARLB)
5th Official: John Montayne (ARLB)

by Andrew Farrell, © 2008-09-27