Red brigade to storm fortress RDS
THE lessons of Munster's Heineken Cup semi-final defeat have been well learned.
On that soggy Sunday in San Sebastian, Biarritz carried out the perfect mugging. Minus their backline figurehead Damien Traille and with forward inspiration Imanol Harinordoquy wrapped in a cloak of injury, the Basques devised a simple, but hugely effective, gameplan.
It revolved around keeping pace with the 2008 champions for 50 minutes and then unleashing an impact-laden bench to drive them over the line.
The upshot was Munster losing a match they know they should have won and, having had two weeks to pore over the findings, the southerners have reacted accordingly.
The evidence is in Tony McGahan's selection for tonight's Magners League semi-final showdown with Leinster at the RDS (8.0). Hooker Jerry Flannery and flanker David Wallace are relegated to the bench, as are the in-form pair of winger Denis Hurley and No 8 James Coughlan.
Given that Wallace and Hurley were both rolled out for media duties midweek and that McGahan took time out to emphasise the strides taken by Coughlan this season, it is fair to say that these calls constitute a surprise. However, what it has done is to provide McGahan with a back-up plan
Leinster justifiably start as favourites based on their consistent form over the season and a RDS league record that has not seen them defeated since Munster's 18-0 victory in September 2008. It leaves Munster in the position that Biarritz found themselves in a fortnight ago and their intention will be to stay in touch up until 10-15 minutes after half-time before an injection of dynamism through Flannery, Wallace, Coughlan, Peter Stringer and Hurley.
Keith Earls starts in the centre next to Jean de Villiers, continuing the Limerick man's one-game-in-two trend as he battles the groin injury that has plagued him since the Six Nations. His availability is a considerable boost to McGahan, given that Leinster start their stellar combination of Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy and Hurley is ready to come onto the wing with Mafi switching to centre should Earls be forced out.
Damien Varley starts in Flannery's stead and the Garryowen and former Wasps hooker has enjoyed a fine season, characterised by consistent line-out throwing and effective ball-carrying. Niall Ronan is at open side ahead of Wallace, but, while he does not have the Lions flanker's strength on the charge, the former Leinster man has the pace and ball-handling ability to complement his backline and the breakdown skills to challenge Leinster's Shane Jennings in what promises to be a pivotal battle.
Nick Williams starting ahead of Coughlan puts the onus on the Aucklander to make a powerful statement after two seasons in which he has failed to make his mark. As the nursery rhyme goes, when Williams is good he is very, very good, but when he is bad he is horrid and, against an opponent of the calibre of Jamie Heaslip, the No 8 needs to produce a big game this evening.
The Leinster team runs along expected lines with the return of Jonathan Sexton to the out-half slot, a huge lift for player, province and Irish coach Declan Kidney ahead of the summer tour. Having not played since fracturing his jaw against Clermont in early April, an element of rustiness is to be expected, but the St Mary's man has the ability and mental strength to pick up where he left off.
Which is just as well for Leinster, as his opposite number goes into tonight's clash determined to make a statement about his status as Ireland's premier playmaker. Last October, the stand-off debate was at its zenith ahead of the November internationals and Ronan O'Gara's face off with Sexton at the RDS ended in a unanimous victory for the Leinster man as the home side cruised to a 30-0 victory.
However, O'Gara arrives in Ballsbridge on the back of a strong run of form and with a point to prove, a scenario which always brings the best out of the 33-year-old.
Logic decrees that Leinster should come through with a couple of scores to spare, but Munster have never been in thrall to the powers of reason.
Last December, hardly anyone gave them a shot when they travelled down to Perpignan and they produced a phenomenal performance that blew the French champions away. In April, Northampton arrived in Thomond Park ready to claim a famous scalp, but their ill-advised pre-match cockiness was blasted asunder by a Munster display that married fire with focus.
The general consensus is that Munster are a heavyweight side that has passed its peak, with a clutch of thirtysomethings hanging on until the next wave comes through. While that may be true, to an extent, this side still carries a powerful punch and, when it is backed up by a deep sense of frustration, they become even more dangerous.
The frustration stems from self-acknowledged inconsistency and from having to watch with gritted teeth as Leinster assumed their role as Ireland's premier province. Throw in the fact that they know it should be them and not Biarritz travelling to Paris next weekend for the Heineken Cup final showdown with Toulouse and there is no shortage of motivation for Munster this evening.
Predicting a Munster win is a big call, particularly in the absence of their totemic leader Paul O'Connell, as they no longer unsettle Leinster in the way they used to and Michael Cheika and his squad believe they have their southern rivals well worked out at this stage.
However, there has been a sense all week that Munster are ready to pull a big performance out of the bag and the revenge imperative is a powerful one -- particularly at the RDS. De Villiers is returning home to South Africa soon and the big Springbok has not forgotten the spanking he received from O'Driscoll last October, or, indeed, playing second fiddle to the same opponent on the Lions tour last summer.
It is safe to expect a big game from the Springbok -- and from his team-mates -- this evening. At the end of a long and draining season, the build-up to this encounter has been relatively low-key, but we should be in for a compelling tussle tonight.
Leinster may hold the advantage well into the second-half, but McGahan can then send for the cavalry and Munster's bench impact may just be enough to squeeze them home.