Determined Munster to sate their hunger
Published 02/04/2010 | 05:00
You'd think the fact that Paul O'Connell joining Brian O'Driscoll on the sidelines would signify a certain diminution in intensity ahead of one of world rugby's fiercest rivalries.
Not a bit of it. There will still be 44 players in red and blue facing each other in mortal combat and hence skin, blood and hair will fly. It's ever thus with these two.
And yet, just as this fixture provided the ballast for Irish rugby's dramatic rise in the 21st century, both these outfits -- whisper it -- have their eyes on an even bigger picture next week.
They haven't out-grown this fixture but neither side's season will be determined by its result.
Leinster may have outdone Munster physically and mentally in the 30-0 reverse fixture earlier this season, but that was rendered an utter irrelevance when they failed to reproduce the same levels a week later in succumbing meekly to London Irish in their opening Heineken Cup game.
As a result, neither side will seek to extract a disproportionate amount of evidence from this evening's game ahead of next week's defining European quarter-finals; hence the rather slimmed down team-sheets.
And so the seemingly shock withdrawals of both O'Connell and Lions colleague Keith Earls yesterday -- the latter's causing Girvan Dempsey a more comforting sleep last night following his travails against Connacht's Fionn Carr -- must be viewed within the context of them being primed for fitness next week.
Leinster seem set to take advantage of O'Connell's absence from the only area where he has really dominated this season -- from touch -- as their pack is locked and loaded with supreme ball-thievers such as Devin Toner, Jamie Heaslip and Nathan Hines.
The ballast in the eight will also help them at scrum time where Tony Buckley is again over-looked for Munster; similarly, Mike Ross is omitted entirely from the Leinster squad and
Cian Healy, disappointingly starts from the bench.
Ireland's prop cover is, one dares suggest, looking thinner than ever.
Or perhaps this is a further indication that the more important body of work for these sides happens next weekend. If Buckley and Ross aren't trusted next week, then both men should worry about where their careers are going.
Jerry Flannery's return will add some bite to the front-row stages but there will be more emphasis on his darts, given the visiting behemoths who will be seeking to snaffle every throw.
With O'Driscoll absent, Fergus McFadden gets a chance to demonstrate whether his recent time occupying centre stage can survive this promotion to a level of intensity he has not yet experienced. The return of Gordon D'Arcy will be a help.
And then there is the minor squabble at No 10, likely to be infused with some of the visceral sledging -- on and off the field -- that a certain Dr Phil used to receive around these parts.
The out-half contest will be an intriguing battle within a battle, with the usual proviso surrounding the quality of play from their half-back partners as well as the inestimable support provided by whose pack can achieve better momentum.
Leinster were physically undermined by Connacht last weekend and they will be keen to bounce back from a humiliation in the tight exchanges that European champions should not be suffering. Watch out for a blistering opening 10 minutes.
"Training has been a bit disjointed over the last while and it was the same last week with the return of the international players from Ireland camp, so it was hardly ideal preparation from our point of view," said Leo Cullen, almost mirroring Munster's excuses following their RDS debacle.
"When you come up against a team like Connacht who are together for longer periods without too much disruption to their personnel, you have to adapt fast and to their credit they looked more cohesive and were unlucky not to come away with something more from the game.
"We had opportunities to win the game, but we got out of jail and the players know that we will have to improve this week because we're coming up against an in-form Munster team who have been steadily improving in recent months.
"Of course it's a league game with points up for grabs, and from a club perspective we want to secure a home semi-final, but derby games have more spice and some of us have been at it for 10 years or more, so you have a fair indication of what to expect come kick off!"
The top two inches will be as crucial as the physical battle.
Mentally, Munster didn't show up in the RDS before Christmas, notwithstanding the absence of their Lions players; they, too, will require a show of remorse before their loyal faithful.
"They won the battle that day," said former Leinster man Niall Ronan this week. Munster's home form has kept them in the chase for a play-off spot despite what Tony McGahan admitted this week was the holder's below-par form on the road.
They are the best team at home in the Magners League with 31 points from a possible 35 on Munster turf. For their part, Leinster have not lost a game in any competition since their 14-30 reversal at the Dragons in early December.
Within the prism of this fixture, the last 14 ties have been shared -- including the two epic semi-finals -- yet some of those encounters, like tonight's, have not necessarily deployed the strongest possible cast.
Perhaps more pertinent in terms of trying to separate the sides is the fact that Leinster have not won at Thomond Park since 1995. Munster are six-point favourites with the bookmakers, which sounds about right.
Mostly, these fixtures come down to who wants it more. At this moment, Munster are marginally the needier.