Brent Pope: Will Munster and Leinster have the courage to expand on their attacking style?
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Despite scoring 46 tries and becoming Munster’s all-time leading try-scorer, Simon Zebo said this week that he would trade a lot of those tries for just one against Leinster.
It’s remarkable to think that a player who can often turn something out of nothing has yet to cross the whitewash against Munster’s fiercest rivals. It again shows the tightness of these fixtures.
The timing of this weekend’s Aviva derby could not be better. It is the perfect dress rehearsal for the European Champions Cup that follows. Both coaches can ill-afford any untimely injuries but they do need a game that cranks things up to another level, and both coaches will presumably field the majority of a starting side that will feature in Europe.
This game is also important in that it needs to be a confidence booster for both players and supporters. It needs to show that both former European heavyweights welcome European rugby rather than run in fear of it.
The only issue is that because of the bragging rights and the traditional need to win, these games are too often just a dour enough arm wrestle rather than a chance to showcase a new and expansive game plan.
We have already seen a shifting of the sands in the way that both teams have started the PRO 12 season under new coaching influences of Rassie Erasmus in Munster and Stuart Lancaster in Leinster, especially in the way both teams defend.
The question is whether either side has the mettle to expand on their attacking style, or will both teams revert to kick-and-chase in order to claim the victory?
If they do they may win the battle but lose the war. If either province is going to progress through Europe then – like Connacht bravely did last year – they need to stay true to what they have been developing. You must have faith in the plan, changing your general ethos at this late change will not work.
There will be some fascinating individual match-ups from both sides, especially in the loose forwards where both sides carry plenty of strength in depth and clout.
CJ Stander is a serious talisman for Munster with a lot of close plays revolving around his relationship with scrumhalf Conor Murray.
Abrasive flanker Peter O’Mahoney came through some game time last week and while he may not start his aggression will certainly be seen at some stage in the game, especially if it’s still tight late on.
Against a highly combative Munster trio will be the likes of Leinster’s own talisman, Jamie Heaslip, eager to prove that the old dog can still keep the pretenders at bay, while in-form flanker Josh van der Flier will be ready to remind the watching Joe Schmidt that he wants a crack at the All Blacks next month.
The scrums will be a close run thing, with Munster packing a pretty efficient cockpit in recent weeks. But they will come up against an experienced Leinster front row that will be equally as eager to shut that part of Munster’s power game down.
In the backs we can probably expect Leinster to have a slightly wider game plan, with Munster preferring the effective kicking game of Conor Murray, as well as plenty of ball-carrying from Stander close in.
Conversely, Leinster have tended to use their pop runners slightly wider this season, in and an around the out-half, where the likes of Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Van der Flier have picked some quality lines of attack to date.
Statistics usually favour the home team in the Pro12, but there will be an equal mix of red and blue supporters in the Aviva and with both teams littered with Irish internationals that regard the Aviva as their second home.
A key difference could be that if, as predicted, New Zealand underage star Tyler Bleyendaal starts as Munster’s out-half then he will have had little experience at the home of Irish rugby.
Leinster’s Jonny Sexton knows every crosswind and blade of grass the stadium has to offer. It is sometimes the smallest of margins that can make the difference, a kick that does not find touch or a restart that is too long or too short can be the game at this level.
Last year’s form means nothing now – Leinster to shade it by five points courtesy of Jonny Sexton’s boot.