Schmidt's troops can hit Munster for six
WHEN Irish rugby began its upsurge in success, glamour and popularity around 10 years ago, new supporters washed into the game adding to the hype, exposure and, most pertinently, revenue.
Munster and Leinster, as Ireland's highest profile and most successful professional entities, were at the heart of the country's rugby revival. Desperate to demonstrate a 'commitment' to the cause and, spurred on by the increasing number of platforms with which to do so, we have since become accustomed to tedious interprovincial baiting which relies more on dim-witted slurs and stereotype-driven slander than any worthwhile comparisons.
The upside is full houses for Munster-Leinster clashes which provides the atmosphere to raise intensity and standards on the pitch, as well as crucial ticket and merchandising revenue. The downside is the tired, adolescent swipe-and-sneer sideshow conducted by various 'die-hards' who doggedly display their 'ardour' with spanking new jerseys and alcohol-fuelled acrimony.
If these supporters truly wish to demonstrate their loyalty to the provincial cause and desire to grow the game within its boundaries, why don't they go down to their local club and prove it?
Thankfully, there are ample ingredients to stir the blood ahead of tonight's Magners League feast at Thomond Park without recourse to unnecessary and unsavoury condiments.
Munster arrive desperate to prevent further subjugation in this fixture after five straight reverses, while Leinster's motivation stems from the knowledge that they are heading into a season-defining fortnight.
Tonight's task is followed swiftly by their Heineken Cup quarter-final against Leicester and then another tricky game against Ulster. If those results go against Joe Schmidt's side, they could suddenly find themselves out of Europe and under severe pressure to secure a league play-off.
Thus, the powerful desire to kick-off this sequence of games in the right manner. And there are individual motivations also. Leo Cullen captains the side and goes up against the Munster pairing that relegated his Six Nations involvement to brief cameo status when his form going into the championship suggested a more meaningful role.
Kevin McLaughlin is at blindside flanker and will be keen to prove his full return to form and fitness for Ireland coach Declan Kidney as well as the lineout skills that could have earned him a place on the Six Nations bench ahead of Munster's Denis Leamy.
His counterpart Donnacha Ryan gets the nod ahead of Leamy to counter that aerial threat and is another who will be eager to keep his name in Kidney's mind ahead of the World Cup.
The scrum-half situation is particularly intriguing. Eoin Reddan and Peter Stringer ended the Six Nations as Ireland's top two No 9s but neither gets a start this evening. Isaac Boss gets the nod for Leinster, which is consistent with Schmidt's rotation policy, employing the bigger Boss for away matches and most physical tests, and there is every chance Reddan will start against Leicester.
Either way, Schmidt has two scrum-halves in excellent form to call on. Conor Murray starts at nine for Munster and his rapid rise to prominence has been as startling as it has been impressive. Although young and relatively inexperienced, Murray has the tools to stand up to Boss and his size will also be used against the Leinster back-row in the absence of Tomas O'Leary.
Out wide, Luke Fitzgerald is back where he belongs on the left wing after his difficulties for Ireland at 15. His contest with Doug Howlett should be particularly arresting and this would be the perfect stage for Fitzgerald to remind everyone what a dangerous attacker he can be.
Of the two selections, Leinster's is clearly the more settled and familiar, with Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy forming their customary centre partnership and Shane Horgan set to win his 200th provincial cap on the right wing, with Isa Nacewa slotting into his usual 15 role.
Munster coach Tony McGahan has never been slow to give youth its head and there is an exciting feel to this team. Given their healthy lead at the summit of the table, the league points are not crucial for Munster and there is an encouraging 'go for broke' aspect to McGahan's choices that bodes well for the future as Munster continue their post-Toulon revival.
Murray at scrum-half, Johne Murphy in the centre and Felix Jones getting in ahead of Paul Warwick at 15 are big calls and, with the electric Keith Earls and Howlett on the touchlines, we could see some exhilarating play.
So, who's going to win? As ever in these contests, it is an extremely tough one to call. The bookmakers favour Munster and, with a raucous Thomond Park roaring them on against the team they like to beat most, there are convincing reasons to plump for a home win.
Not least the Paul O'Connell factor. The Munster captain was absent for the last three losses to Leinster but remembers all too clearly the spankings at Croke Park and the RDS and will do all in his power to bring this run of derby defeats to a halt.
Such are his powers of inspiration, allied to a driven and talented side coming off the back of a run of impressive results, that a Munster win could be deemed almost an inevitable outcome.
However, if Leinster bring their own fury to the occasion and marry to the defensive surety and attacking flair that has characterised their season post-September, they certainly have the capacity to make it six from six. They will have to be at their very best to pull it off, though, because there is a sense of a big Munster performance coming and one that should convince doubters that McGahan is on the right track, regardless of this result.
With two power-packed benches adding to the anticipation, this should be a cracking contest and the message to the 'die-hards' is simple: keep the rivalry dignified, and enjoy it for what it is.
MUNSTER -- F Jones; D Howlett, J Murphy, L Mafi, K Earls; R O'Gara, C Murray; W du Preez, D Varley, T Buckley; D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (capt); D Ryan, D Wallace, J Coughlan. Reps: M Sherry, M Horan, J Hayes, M O'Driscoll, D Leamy, P Stringer, P Warwick, S Tuitupou.
LEINSTER -- I Nacewa; S Horgan, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald; J Sexton, I Boss; C Healy, R Strauss, M Ross; L Cullen (capt), N Hines; K McLaughlin, S O'Brien, J Heaslip. Reps: A Dundon, H van der Merwe, S Wright, D Toner, R Ruddock, E Reddan, I Madigan, F McFadden.
REF -- A Small (England).
Munster v Leinster,
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