Tony Ward: Munster to shade rugby's biggest derby
Published 05/10/2013 | 05:00
After a summer in which Gaelic Games have left every other sporting code for dead, rugby finally gets its chance to bite back at Thomond Park tonight (6.45) when Munster and Leinster go head to head.
If there is a bigger derby in rugby I don't know it. This is your Celtic/ Rangers, your Liverpool/Manchester United, your Barcelona/Real Madrid all rolled into one.
The fact they stand at third (Munster) and fourth (Leinster) in the Pro12 table matters not a jot. Were they 11th and 12th, the build-up would be no different.
This matters to both provinces more than the points on offer. Factor in the Heineken Cup just around the corner, plus a clean slate where new Ireland coach Joe Schmidt is concerned, and you've got the drift.
The days of the free-running pretty boys from Dublin coming south and getting a good physical going-over have been long put to rest.
Professionalism and the input of Michael Cheika, in tandem with Jono Gibbes, has seen that 'ladyboy' myth well and truly buried.
Leinster will be more than up for the fight – they would be disappointed were the men in red not to get in amongst them early and test their resolve.
With the exception of the injured Tommy O'Donnell, Munster have named a match-day 23 pretty close to full strength. Their bench is formindable: Damien Varley, BJ Botha, Donncha O'Callaghan, CJ Stander and Conor Murray could just as easily be starting, while James Cronin, JJ Hanrahan and Denis Hurley have been pushing close at prop, out-half and full-back respectively.
By contrast, Leinster travel short Richardt Strauss, Leo Cullen, Shane Jennings and Brian O'Driscoll from a full-strength XV.
The decision to leave out O'Driscoll is common sense. Much though he would add to the Thomond Park occasion, given the demanding Heineken Cup fortnight ahead it represents a smart call from head coach Matt O'Connor.
The decision to run with Lote Tuqiri at outside-centre is interesting to say the least. The physicality and route-one running guaranteed from former Leinster centre James Downey will be matched by Tuqiri, albeit one position out.
It is but one of many fascinating unit and individual match-ups. Downey and Casey Laulala on Gordon D'Arcy and Tuqiri will have a major bearing on field position allied to the quality of possession.
Niall Ronan's tilt with the returning Sean O'Brien will be key to the battle at the breakdown.
Hugely encouraging from an Irish perspective is that seven of the eight props down for action (save Botha) are home-grown. Both front-rows are exceptionally strong.
However, it is the battle of what was once called the boiler house but is a now an area inhabited by man-mountains that should particularly interest Schmidt, Gert Smal and John Plumtree. In Donnacha Ryan, Paul O'Connell, Donncha O'Callaghan, Mike McCarthy and Devin Toner, you've got the cream of second-row talent in the country in action.
It's a big game for all but for one the stakes are particularly high, given his stage of development. If ever opportunity knocked it is for the 6' 10" Toner this evening. At 27, the ex-Castleknock College giant's time is now.
Beyond that, all eyes will be on the new dynamic at half-back for both provinces. I suspect that it is Munster with the greater void to fill given the skill-set and pattern of play Ronan O'Gara brought to their cause for so long.
Ian Keatley and JJ Hanrahan are still battling for pole position to replace the living legend.
For Leinster, what once seemed a seamless transition for Ian Madigan (replacing Jonny Sexton) is now fraught with danger.
Jimmy Gopperth is, at 30, the real deal signed from Newcastle. Madigan starts this evening and deservedly so but there is precious little in it.
The battle of the props, the clash of the second-row giants, the strategy in midfield... but more than anything the game management at out-half makes this a Munster/ Leinster clash over and above the ordinary.
Add the Antipodean factor in the guise of Rob Penney and O'Connor and it makes for some mix.
As to the outcome, home advantage once mattered but I'm not so sure of its relevance to this very special fixture anymore. Whatever else, it sure won't disappoint.
Forget all the head and heart stuff, gut instinct says Munster by a short head.
FIJI'S DEFEAT OF KIWIS SHOWS ISLANDERS' HUGE POTENTIAL
It didn't get global headlines, but what the Fijian Schools achieved when beating their New Zealand counterparts 22-20 in Sydney last weekend was a massive statement for the potential of the game in the Pacific islands.
Most talented Islanders eventually make their way to New Zealand, and they eventually become available to their adopted land.
But imagine if there was an Island presence in Super Rugby – better still, a combined islands side comprising players home and abroad in the recently extended Rugby Championship.
What might that do for game development in this rugby-daft but grossly under-funded region?
I won't be holding my breath, but let's just watch this space and see how many of this clearly talented group of Fijians stay home and go on to represent the country of their birth at senior level.
GREATS' KNOWLEDGE TO BE SHARED AT TCD
This day fortnight (October 19) the Department of Religions and Theology at Trinity College will host a conference on ethics and sport.
Starting at 10.0 in the morning in The Trinity Longroom Hub, former Dublin manager and All-Ireland winning player Pat Gilroy (right) will make the opening address.
The line-up after that includes a veritable who's who in the sporting world and is tabled as follows:
10.30 – Sponsorship of sport by drink companies (Professor Joe Barry, TCD)
11.0 – Games without frontiers (Galway dual player and charity worker, Alan Kerins)
11.30 – Why I fell out of love with cycling (Anthony Moran, former vice-president of Cycling Ireland)
12.0 – Triumphs and tribulations (Jason Sherlock, former Dublin star)
12.45 – Remembering Nevin (Emma Spence, along with Irish rugby legend Ollie Campbell)
2.0 – Mind games (Enda McNulty, Armagh All-Ireland medal winner and psychologist)
2.30 – Women in sport (Dr Katie Liston)
3.0 – Panel discussion on a range of sporting issues – PJ Cunningham (journalist, writer and publisher), John O'Mahony (twice All-Ireland winning manager), Hugo McNeill (former Ireland full-back) and chairman John Scally (writer and lecturer at TCD)
4.0 – Closing address from Olympic icon Ronnie Delany.
For further information contact John Scally : firstname.lastname@example.org