George Hook: If players can't get up for this one, they've no business playing rugby
Published 29/03/2014 | 02:30
The criticism levelled at Michael Cheika in the aftermath of Munster's 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final win at Lansdowne Road was misplaced and inaccurate. Leinster fans, in desperate need of succour and solace after a royal hammering by their bitter rivals directed their ire at the Australian coach.
Clueless supporters in the aftermath of that home humiliation claimed that Cheika, in his first season in charge, did not grasp the importance and intensity of the rivalry between the teams.
Critics suggested he was too laid-back in his approach and did not appreciate the sacred bragging rights at stake. This, according to the critics, directly contributed to a below-par Leinster performance.
Horse manure. The rivalry between Leinster and Munster has always been about the players. It has never factored in a coach's ability to process and understand the history between the sides. The players have all the motivation they will ever need staring across at them in an opposition jersey.
Put simply, if the players can't get up for this fixture, they have no business playing rugby in the first place.
Rob Penney's press conferences this week have made for interesting viewing but the Munster coach would have better served his own players by keeping his two cents to himself. In an effort to emulate the type of mind games you get from Jose Mourinho, Penney observed that today's clash was "Munster against the Six Nations champions".
Perhaps the New Zealander thought he was being smart, attempting to give his side a mental push in the build-up. Maybe he was trying to disrupt Leinster's preparations. Either way, his words will have had little effect on either camp. The only push Munster need is the knowledge that Leinster provide the opposition.
Penney's comments were made tongue in cheek, but were disingenuous nevertheless. To even imply that Joe Schmidt picked Leinster players for Ireland because of his familiarity with them or because of old favouritism is to do him a massive disservice.
Schmidt picked the best players for the Six Nations, and Ireland's victory in Paris was a testament to the fact that he got it spot on.
Yes, there were one or two Munster players who might have made the bench, but in each case Schmidt justified his decision with sound reason and rugby logic. His selections were ultimately vindicated with a championship.
Tonight, Leinster's hand is stronger, particularly in the backs. Penney's decision to go with Denis Hurley at inside-centre is a bit like casting Vanessa Feltz for the lead role in 'Baywatch'. Yes, she can fill the suit, but would you want her running into the sea to save your life?
Hurley offers no creativity in the No 12 channel. At full-back he just about does a job, but Leinster know that with Hurley at inside-centre, Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll can rush up and expose his below-par passing off either side.
Hurley will attempt to bash his way through the centre all night long but many bigger and stronger men before him have tried and failed to best Leinster's most durable combination. Personally, I would have gambled on the No 10 – No 12 combination of JJ Hanrahan and Ian Keatley.
Munster need to get quick ball to the wings and utilise the pace of Keith Earls and Simon Zebo. Keatley at No 12 would have provided the perfect platform to spin the ball wide, while maintaining Hanrahan's running threat at fly-half. Now, with a brick block at inside-centre, Leinster will have a field day.
The loss of Cian Healy and Jack McGrath in the Leinster front-row is unquantifiable. Munster will target the home scrum and Matt O'Connor must be praying that Michael Bent can deliver some sort of reasonable performance for 80 minutes.
Leinster's team announcement yesterday came with the wonderful line that in spite of injuries to Healy, McGrath and Martin Moore, the front-row is still made up of 'full internationals'. I don't think even Bent himself would wear that badge in public with a straight face.
The line-out will be interesting. Donnacha Ryan's absence is one Munster could have done without, but I have been impressed by the work rate and aggression of replacement Dave Foley this season. Like Ryan, Foley has the touch of the 'mad dog Irishman' in him. This is his best chance to stake a claim for automatic selection.
The battle between Foley and Paul O'Connell and Devin Toner and Mike McCarthy will go a long way towards deciding this game. O'Connell has a habit of saving his most destructive and outstanding rugby for these fixtures, while question marks remain over McCarthy's temperament.
If Leinster can gain parity up front, their backs will take care of the rest. Munster, with the selection of Hurley, will have to resort to tactics of old if they are to snuff out their arch-rivals. It promises to be an almighty battle.