Munster clash to kick-start Blues
Byrne feels real Leinster now ready to stand up
TIMING is everything and Shane Byrne sees Munster's visit to the Aviva stadium on Saturday night as just what Leinster need to kick-start their season.
The former Leinster, Ireland and Lions hooker believes that the slow start to the Joe Schmidt era was inevitable due to the seismic changes in personnel in the province, but that the arrival of Tony McGahan's side into town will sharpen focus.
"We're all waiting for the real Leinster to stand up. The new structure, with regard to the availability of international players, seems to have ruffled Leinster more than anyone else, but you have a new coach and a new back-room team. They'll need time to bed in, so you can't point the finger at them," said Byrne.
"This is on the players' heads and if there's anything that will sharpen the focus, it's a game against Munster."
Schmidt will decide tomorrow whether to risk out-half Jonny Sexton this weekend, though Byrne is keen for the St Mary's man to return.
However, any further aggravation to Sexton's quad injury could see him ruled out of the Heineken Cup opener against high-flying Top 14 side Racing Metro 92. Leinster face the Parisians in the RDS on Saturday week, with home victories essential in the competition's 'Pool of Death'.
"Neither Leinster nor Munster got a nice draw in Europe, but Leinster's is a nightmare. If you play Sexton he might not be around for the European game, so it's a huge call, one of the biggest of Schmidt's tenure so far," suggested Byrne.
"Isa Nacewa is a superb back-three player, but we found out two seasons ago that he is not a No 10. Ian Madigan is a good talent, he's young and has done well this season so far. He'll probably see plenty of action this season through the Player Welfare Programme, but he's just not there yet."
Leinster enter a crucial phase of the season and a defeat on Saturday would mark their fourth loss in the Magners league this term, just one shy of their total for last season. However, any pressure that has been heaped on Schmidt is well wide of the mark, according to Byrne.
"The Magners League has improved greatly as a competition and you can see that in their performances in the Heineken Cup. As well as that, Leinster now have the tag of 'former champions'. Everyone wants a shot at them and they are going to have to learn to deal with it. Treviso played some fantastic rugby to beat Leinster and they haven't received the credit for it.
"So, anyone who knows anything about Leinster knows the poor start has nothing to do with Schmidt. The only thing you could say is that he hasn't appointed a defence coach and Kurt McQuilkin was a huge part of Leinster's game plan over the last few seasons. Defensive systems are pretty much the same these days, but everyone has their own little tweaks. That's a huge gap you have to fill there.
"Under McQuilkin, Leinster used to take the space around the fringes and so far their tackling there has been poor. Munster will know that and they'll attack their weaknesses there and Leinster will have to get on top of that. But the players know themselves, there have been too many mistakes.
"Ronan O'Gara has been doing what he does for Munster and Denis Leamy has been a revelation. Leinster haven't enjoyed the same sort of form and you can't understate the affect the absence of Leo Cullen has either. But Leinster probably have more to gain from this game than Munster."
Former Munster back Anthony Horgan agrees that Sexton could have a huge bearing on the game if he plays as Leinster look to record a fifth successive win over Munster, something they have not managed since the 1930s.
"He's such an important player and maybe the guys outside him come more alive when he's playing," said the former Irish wing, who made his debut against Samoa in 2003.
"Leinster are finding their feet under a new coach and Munster have been grinding out results. It's a cliche, but the form book goes out the window here.
"Both sides have their injuries. You can't get by anymore with a squad of 23 and 24, the game is so much more physical now and they both have big Heineken Cup matches the following weekend, so team selections will be interesting.
"But it'll be all about bragging rights on Saturday night and no one will be thinking of November or the World Cup when kick-off comes."