Thursday 21 September 2017

Munster v Leinster: Much has changed since these old enemies last locked horns

Josh van der Flier: 'Even to be in contention for this type of game is incredible'
Josh van der Flier: 'Even to be in contention for this type of game is incredible'
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It's a pity Monday's meeting between Munster and Leinster wasn't the other way around, for the sold out signs would be up in Lansdowne Road in the same way as they are up in Thomond Park - and twice as many supporters would get to witness a game so full of promise. We can't remember the last time this Christmas get-together had so much going for it.

Clearly the death of Anthony Foley has added another layer to the fabric of this occasion. And while the emotion of that tragedy is no longer the focal point for Rassie Erasmus's side on match day, it will be an issue for many.

When the teams last met it was the week before the Champions League kicked off. And so emphatic was Leinster's win that Munster headed over to Paris to face Racing, the current Top 14 champions, knowing that back-to-back defeats in October - the sort of losses that left no margin for 'what ifs' - would have implications for the rest of the season.

Nobody saw what was coming next, but in the wake of the tragedy of losing a key man in their coaching set-up, Munster have transformed themselves. And they've been doing it in front of crowds they hadn't budgeted for at the start of the season. You wonder how mindful Leinster will be of all this on their way down the M7.

There will be a poignancy in that group too, for it was on the morning of that early-season Guinness Pro12 fixture that news broke of Hayden Triggs' loss - that his prematurely-born daughter Stella had passed away. So a fair bit to deal with on both sides now.

"Yeah it was obviously terrible what happened Anthony Foley and Hayden's daughter - it's going to be emotional for a while," Josh van der Flier says. "I don't think those things pass quickly, with everyone being fine. People hang on to them and I'm sure players will have all that in the back of their minds. But you've got to focus on doing them proud I suppose. It really puts it into perspective: sport is my job and that kind of thing, but it's just a game, if you know what I mean? In a way it makes things more real."

Van der Flier was the 24th man when the sides met in October. Being the spare wheel is something he copes well with when it's an away game - "nice hotel and you can eat as much free food as you want," he says - but at home it's a bit close for comfort. So that night he was inside having a shower as the game unfolded without him. And that allowed Rhys Ruddock, Jordi Murphy and Dan Leavy further their own causes. That has to be unnerving?

"Yeah, a hundred per cent," he says. "The lads were brilliant that night. We didn't really let Munster into it or get any momentum because once they get a head of steam up everyone knows how good they are. And part of that was having the home crowd as well, so it will be massive in Thomond Park. I heard it's sold out as well. Top-of-the-table clash - massive game. I know here all the lads really wanted to play in this one. These are the famous games really. And they're playing unbelievable stuff, so it'll be some game."

It will be Van der Flier's 35th game for the province, and his progress in such an acutely competitive area - he is one of eight Ireland international back rowers in the Leinster squad - reflects well on him. And it's something he appreciates.

"Yeah I dreamt about it anyway and wanted to do it (as a kid)," he says. "It was always the goal - like, what do you want to do? Play professional rugby, play for Leinster, play against Munster in those big games. You know the way you have a dream and you're like, 'I hope it happens', but you don't ever know, and you're thinking it probably won't happen. And then to get the opportunity even to be in contention for this kind of game is pretty incredible really. It's a fantastic feeling and I still find it surreal."

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