Goodwill absent as Leinster travel south locked, loaded and ready to further derail Munster's season

Captain Johnny Sexton and team-mate James Lowe are sure to be at the forefront of the Leinster game plan this evening when Leo Cullen’s charges bid to record their second win of the season over Munster. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

Had he been of a mind to coldly plot his way through the festive season interpro triple-header, Leo Cullen might have sent a weakened team down to Limerick this evening and dealt with the consequences later.

After all, a team devoid of a number of front-liners produced one of the performances of last season to get a memorable victory at Thomond Park and, with a home game against the second-placed team in Conference B, Ulster, to come next week ahead of the decisive European fixtures, he has long-term issues on his mind.

His Leinster team are comfortably on course for a home semi-final and could comfortably absorb a slip-up.

But there is more to this match than the points on offer. Leinster and Munster may exist in different sides of the Guinness PRO14 draw, but few on either side will care about that come 5.15.

There was something of a fallow period for this fixture when the two teams tended to cancel each other out, but the recent renewals have been compelling.

The boys in blue have the upper hand, but perhaps Cullen's selection has been influenced by how closely run the last two meetings have been. In truth, Leinster have been fortunate to win them both.

So, he calls Johnny Sexton from his Christmas break and sends him down the M7 flanked by James Ryan, Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose and Cian Healy, among others. The loosehead makes his 200th Leinster appearance.


Look closely and you'll see a few big hitters are absent, but any team led by Sexton is a serious proposition.

With Ireland player management in full swing, Peter O'Mahony is the biggest name missing from the Munster team-sheet and in his absence CJ Stander captains the side.

The skipper will be missed, but along with Stander there is the return of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery, with Keith Earls on the wing and Jean Kleyn back in the engine room.

It is a strong team, one that will back itself to end a run of defeats to their old foes and turn a recent slump in form around.

For a while now, pundits have been wondering where this Munster team are at in relation to recent seasons when they have been found wanting at the business end of the campaign.

Midway through his first full season, Johann van Graan is facing a defining month with tough derbies against Leinster and Connacht (away) followed by a very difficult European finish.

Their loss to Castres has removed any margin for error in the Champions Cup, while they are once again trailing Glasgow Warriors in the PRO14 race for a home semi-final and a week off.

With their team's backs to the wall, the home faithful in the sold-out stadium will demand a response and a long overdue win against this Leinster team.

Munster watched how much trouble Connacht caused the double-winners with their high-paced, power-packed off-loading game at the RDS.

Andy Friend's side couldn't close the deal against an understrength Leinster, but Munster will have gleaned plenty from the way they stressed the systems put in place by Stuart Lancaster.

The change in personnel helps strengthen those systems, but Van Graan's men hope to cause problems.

As ever in the derby, it all starts up front where Dave Kilcoyne, Niall Scannell and John Ryan aim to repeat their scrummaging feat at the Aviva Stadium where they had Leinster's set-piece in lots of trouble.

Referee Frank Murphy, a former Munster player of course, needs to be vigilant in this area. Leinster were unhappy with the nature of Munster's approach in October, while their opponents felt they weren't given enough reward.

The visitors will look to ape Castres' aggressive approach at the lineout to cause Niall Scannell problems out of touch and with no O'Mahony to aim at, there is set to be plenty of pressure from the Leinster jumpers.

The battle for possession will be furious and the front-line comes at the breakdown where Josh van der Flier has a mission on his hands to negate Chris Cloete's influence, with Rhys Ruddock helping out.

At No 8, there is a mouth-watering Irish head-to-head between CJ Stander and Jack Conan, while the internationals at half-back all have something to play for.

At scrum-half, Luke McGrath will hope to cement his progress with an impressive showing opposite Conor Murray, while Joey Carbery is looking to bounce back from his difficult trip to France as he takes on his old mentor Sexton.

After three kicks went astray in difficult conditions in Castres, Carbery could do with a controlling, assured performance against his old team.

He and Rory Scannell will try to test Rory O'Loughlin's positioning at inside centre, while Dan Goggin offers a real physical presence outside the Cork man.

The Limerick man is up against a class act in Ringrose and the centre, who enjoyed his breakout moment in this fixture a couple of years back, will relish his return to Thomond Park.

Likewise, full-back Jordan Larmour will be keen to relive fond memories of his sensational try a year ago and his combination with James Lowe adds serious attacking threat to the travelling backline. Dave Kearney is slowly recovering his best form.

Munster have plenty of threats in the back-three too, with Mike Haley finding his feet and Keith Earls and Andrew Conway capable of big moments.

Right now, however, Leinster look to have the more cohesive attacking game. They can mix things up nicely by going direct or using width and they have world-class players in every department.

Perhaps the only potential weak point is a bench light on experience, but there are very few poor players in the Leinster set-up.

Munster's need is greater, but that is not enough against quality opposition.

Van Graan's men must show huge improvement across the park if they are to get the kind of win that can ignite their campaign.

Against this Leinster team, that's a huge ask.

Verdict: Leinster

Munster v Leinster

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