Saturday 24 March 2018

Derby day doubts for arch rivals

Poor form has brought unfamiliar sense of unease to both Leinster and Munster as they prepare for latest face-off

David Kelly

David Kelly

OLD foes prepare to meet with new anxieties shadowing their every step.

The fixture may be a familiar one, but its central characters will arguably be the least assured figures heading into the game. Nevertheless, nothing concentrates the mind better than another raucous episode of Irish rugby's blood brothers engaging in combat.

In the recent history of this fixture, Munster and Leinster may have been forgiven for nervously eyeing up their Heineken Cup engagements at this time of year, rather than the more immediate tasks at hand.

Neither side can afford such a luxury on this occasion, simply because neither is comfortably aware of how well they are going to perform today, never mind next week.

Injury travails -- Leinster are shorn key men such as Sean O'Brien and Rob Kearney, while Munster are denied their talisman, Paul O'Connell -- and uncertain form within both camps has contributed to the unease.


Munster may feel slightly more relaxed, given that they are the away side, but, a week out from a seismic fixture in Paris, they would not be averse to extracting a modicum of encouragement from tonight's engagement.

Leinster, too, have been scruffy in their hesitant opening to the league. Despite being buttressed by the knowledge that they have claimed the last two Heineken Cups, this has not inured coach Joe Schmidt against a sense of impending fretfulness ahead of their defence.

Still, the sight of blue and red colliding tends to shatter any introspection.

Schmidt, who will get to experience at least a couple more, having extended his coaching contract by another year, has only experienced four derbies, but even he gets the drill.

"No matter what the preparations of the two teams coming in to a fixture like this or no matter what the previous results are -- and you can't change them anyway -- this game gets people a little bit stirred and motivated and concentrated," he declares.

"That's what we need this week. It's always a game that has a certain allure to it. That allure comes from the players knowing each other so well.

"They combining so well in a green jersey, but when they're wearing red and blue, it becomes like trying to get one over on your brother.

"There's always a little bit more kind of spite in it. There's a little bit more spark in it. That's one of the reasons derby games draw the crowd really.

"People talk about the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup and, separate to that, is the derby game Munster versus Leinster.

"I think that's a great thing to have -- a derby game. Yes, there's Pro12 points up for grabs, and we both would like to get that, but it's about a lot more than that, you know. That's one of the reasons for the supporters and players, and the atmosphere, becoming that more charged."

For his part, Rob Penney will assume control of his first derby against Leinster. If he thought that Munster v Ulster was incredibly intense -- which it was -- nothing will prepare him for the potential whirlwind of anarchy that may ensue at rugby HQ.

"I've certainly seen highlights of previous matches and it's going to be a wonderful occasion," declares Penney.

If he and his coaching counterpart were still down south, they could be jousting in Auckland and Canterbury tussles of some shape or format.

"You've two great international class sides going toe-to-toe. When you're playing games against your countrymen, there's also the potential for international selection down the road, benchmarking yourself against the best.

"It all adds up to the challenge. It's similar to Canterbury, in terms of the expectation from the supporters and the young guys then using that expectation as a driving tool to emulate the greats of the past."

This fixture has fluctuated wildly in recent times. In the late 1990s, Munster were pre-eminent; then there was a period during Leinster's European dominance when Munster couldn't buy a win or -- for more than two years and 400 minutes -- score a try.

The fixture houses a more familiar uncertainty now and this is reflected in how both injury and form have afflicted several aspects of the respective team-sheets.

Leinster have been stung by the absence of their Lions full-back Kearney, who remains such a defensive rock and fulcrum of their counter-attack. With Schmidt unable to trust Fionn Carr on the wing, he has been forced to reshuffle. Ian Madigan, the prodigious kicker who has slotted in to good effect at out-half this season, assumes his occasional stint minding the house. Expect Ronan O'Gara to test his mettle.

Brian O'Driscoll's defensive intelligence will settle the side -- even in Gordon D'Arcy's absence inside him -- after last week's implosion way out west, as will the heft and nous of Eoin Reddan at scrum-half.

Among the forwards, O'Brien completed his first full week of pre-season training yesterday. Leinster have missed his bulk and ability to break the line.


Captain Jamie Heaslip will bear the expectations of his supporters in this regard. Cian Healy's late withdrawal with an arm injury is a further blow to an eight that, on paper at least, packs more of a jab than a punch.

Munster's eight doesn't strike the fear into hearts as of yore, albeit Peter O'Mahony and Donnacha Ryan bolster a side who themselves are stinging from a poor away day. They were repeatedly bullied in losing heavily to Ospreys last weekend.

Behind the scrum, Penney has been persuaded -- or become convinced -- that the Casey Laulala/James Downey midfield partnership is not his first-choice, while he has opted for the experience O'Gara at No.10.

So, on both sides there exists a sense of insecurity. Where better to find oneself than before a packed house in European rugby's biggest fixture this weekend?

"Every game is unique," purrs Sexton.

Somehow you reckon this pairing might just be able to extract the best out of the other. Both could benefit from a positive performance. Only one can achieve the result.

Verdict: Leinster

LEINSTER -- I Madigan; A Conway, B O'Driscoll, F McFadden, I Nacewa; J Sexton, E Reddan; H van der Merwe, R Strauss, M Ross; D Browne; K McLaughlin, S Jennings, J Heaslip (capt).

Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, J Hagan, T Denton, J Murphy, J Cooney, N Reid, F Carr.

MUNSTER -- D Hurley; D Howlett (capt), K Earls, C Laulala, S Zebo; R O'Gara, C Murray; D Kilcoyne, M Sherry, BJ Botha; Donncha O'Callaghan, D Ryan; Dave O'Callaghan, S Dougall, P O'Mahony.

Replacements: D Varley, W du Preez, S Archer, B Holland, P Butler, D Williams, I Keatley, J Downey.

REF -- L Hodges.

Leinster v Munster,

Live, 6.30, TG4

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