Munster primed to pounce on weakened Leinster
Beware of visitors bearing gifts.
Munster's greatest fear today may well be complacency once they viewed a Leinster team-sheet showing ten changes from the side that dismantled Northampton last weekend as the IRFU''s frustrating festive rules undermine the most anticipated fixture of the domestic season.
Captain Peter O'Mahony will be more than aware that such is the strength of depth available to Leinster, the three-time European champions have already this season managed to see off a Dragons side despite not starting 19 of their star-studded international cast.
Then again, although this may not be Leinster as we know it, nor are Munster anything resembling the hapless Dragons.
Despite their loss in Leicester, Munster's seven-game winning run until that point demonstrated that this is a side who have added technical substance and poise to the obvious passions that have fired them since one fateful day in Paris.
Although Munster themselves have been forced into some change, the disruption is effectively minimal and, even though they themselves will have to release players for this week's trip to Connacht, one senses that Rassie Erasmus will be eyeing a festive double.
Before last week's last-minute defeat to Leicester, their last defeat in all competitions had been a rather passive submission to today's opponents at the Aviva Stadium.
Leinster are also the last team to win a league game in Limerick, albeit with nothing akin to the line-up they are putting on display today, but Munster have strung together ten successive league wins at this venue since then.
"They've always been - taking all the emotion aside - very well-coached, very well-disciplined, with a lot of good players who understand exactly what their game plan is and how to execute it," notes Leinster senior coach Stuart Lancaster.
"It is not just emotion that's driving the performances. It is quality coaches, quality players, who've got a real clear understanding of their game plan.
"Our challenge this week is to put pressure on that game plan and play the Leinster way in what's going to be an incredibly hostile and difficult environment for our players.
"My perception of the Leinster way is playing smart rugby, making sure you can challenge teams in the right areas of the field, have a strong set-piece.
"We have a good defence, a strong attacking game, an ability to offload and also to keep the ball alive.
"I'm definitely not suggesting we're going to be playing running rugby from our own 22 against a 14-man red wall."
Mirroring Munster's league form, and the fact that both teams currently top the table on 37 points apiece - Munster lead by virtue of games won - Leinster have also not tasted defeat in eight matches since losing away to Scarlets in November when they were also missing the majority of their Irish internationals.
The stat that will really matter to Munster players and supporters is that which reflects a three-game winning streak in this fixture for the men in blue; offered a golden opportunity to wreak revenge, one feels certain they won't spurn this one.
Munster - S Zebo; D Sweetnam, J Taute, R Scannell, R O'Mahony; T Bleyendaal, C Murray; J Cronin, N Scannell, J Ryan; J Kleyn, D Ryan; P O'Mahony capt., T O'Donnell, CJ Stander. Reps: R Marshall, D Kilcoyne, S Archer, B Holland, J O'Donoghue, D Williams, F Saili, A Conway.
Leinster - Z Kirchner; R O'Loughlin, R Henshaw, B Daly; R Byrne, J Gibson-Park; C Healy, J Tracy, T Furlong, R Molony, M McCarthy, R Ruddock, D Leavy, J Conan.
Reps: R Strauss, P Dooley, M Bent, I Nagle, D Ryan, C Rock, N Reid, T Daly.
Ref - N Owens (WRU)