Sport Leinster Rugby

Saturday 16 December 2017

Tight-five power and Sexton give Leinster edge

If Leinster’s forwards can get the upper hand, then Sexton can control matters and if that happens then the home side will win. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
If Leinster’s forwards can get the upper hand, then Sexton can control matters and if that happens then the home side will win. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

For these two great rivals, the 2017/18 season will get properly under way this afternoon and by the time the sun sets on Ballsbridge they will have a better idea of where they stand.

This fixture may be slightly diminished by the warm-up nature of where it sits in the season, but it serves a very important purpose in road-testing the participants for the step up in competition to come.

How better to prepare for Europe than meeting a fellow semi-finalist in battle.

As with every year, both teams are playing catch-up as they re-integrate their internationals and search for cohesion ahead of the Champions Cup.

With Montpellier and Castres looming large, momentum is the key.

More than 45,000 fans are expected at the Aviva Stadium which proves the derby remains a draw and it could do with a high-quality game with plenty of incidents to ignite the campaign and entertain those who have made the effort.

In recent years, this has often been something of a slug-fest settled by a moment of quality - whether it's Brian O'Driscoll's sleight of hand or Ben Te'o's power - mostly on the blue side of the divide.

Home advantage helps, but this one is evenly balanced ahead of kick-off.

Perhaps the difference between the teams will be the calibre of player they can call on in their tight-five, where Munster are likely to feel the loss of Donnacha Ryan in the biggest games of the season.

Without him and injured pair Jean Kleyn and Gerbrandt Grobler, Rassie Erasmus is forced to deploy Robin Copeland in the second-row.

Both of Leinster's props are well ahead of their opposite numbers in the Ireland pecking order, while the pairing of Scott Fardy and Devin Toner would hope to dominate their own rivals to boot.

If Leinster can get the upper hand in Munster's traditional area of strength, they'll be halfway to victory.

That said, the loss of calf victim Sean O'Brien means that Munster appear to have the slight upper hand in the back-row - while it could be argued that Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton almost cancel one another out.

Behind a solid set-piece, and a pack going forward, the Lions out-half can pull the strings, however and may look to exploit the height advantage his side enjoy on the wings.

These games rarely go to script however, and with Ireland places up for grabs, the contact area should be fierce.

If the set-piece is where the battle lines are drawn, the ruck is where the war will be won and there is a nice balance to both back-rows.

Behind the scrum, Rassie Erasmus has opted to play Ian Keatley at out-half with Tyler Bleyendaal outside him. JJ Hanrahan is at full-back in Simon Zebo's absence as Andrew Conway moves to the wing.

It certainly gives the Munster attack plenty of options, any of that three can step into the play-making void and dictate the play if the service is good enough.

Robbie Henshaw may be on his first game back, but he'll relish the chance to take the game to Bleyendaal who hasn't had much midfield opportunity since moving from New Zealand.

Damage

Chris Farrell's size will help man that channel and he'll hope to do some damage with ball in hand as well.

Out wide, Barry Daly and Adam Byrne are given the nod ahead of the more experienced Fergus McFadden and Dave Kearney and with Joey Carbery at full-back the Reds could look to use Murray's prodigious boot to pull the young trio around the park.

In the absence of Isa Nacewa, Leo Cullen has gone for game-breakers. Daly scored a hat-trick in his last outing and the 25-year-old is an exciting product of the All-Ireland League.

There is plenty of talent in both backlines, but much depends on the service they get.

If Leinster's forwards can get the upper hand, then Sexton can control matters and if that happens then the home side will win.

Munster, however, won't make life easy for them and will back themselves to take it to the wire.

Let the season begin.

Verdict: Leinster

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