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Magners League Grand final: Who dares wins

BASKING in the glory of last weekend's remarkable triumph, the jokes have been flying around Leinster this week ahead of this evening's Magners League Grand Final clash with Munster at a sold-out Thomond Park (5.05).

One particularly cruel one involved the Drug Squad being called to Thomond Park yesterday only for the crisis to be averted when it was established that the suspicious white powder on the pitch was in fact the Leinster tryline.

The most remarkable statistic heading into this latest instalment in one of the most compelling rivalries in rugby is that Munster have not managed to cross the Leinster line in their last six meetings, failing to score a try since Denis Fogarty managed the feat back in April 2009. Not to be sniffed at.

It is rendered all the more puzzling by Munster's average of two tries per game during their regular season league campaign (44 in 22 matches) as they worked their way impressively to a record 13-point margin at the head of the table.

Leinster's defensive surety has been the bedrock upon which this season's success has been constructed, with last Saturday's three-try collapse in the first half of the Heineken Cup final against Northampton an aberration, swiftly put to bed in the second half when they did not concede a single point.

However, those events could provide a clue as to how things will unfold in Limerick a week later. Northampton profited from Leinster not being at the races in that first period, seemingly unnerved by the big-day pressure and their status as overwhelming favourites. They take to the pitch today as the stronger side seeking to become the first team to complete a Magners-Heineken double.

The question marks centre on their psychological state for, no matter how hard they try to maintain their mental focus for the final chapter of a long season, getting to the same level of intensity they had in the second half against Northampton is a major challenge. Cardiff is a hard act to follow.

For Munster, the psychological test is far simpler. Conclude the season with a trophy which recognises both their league consistency and determination to remain a major force in European rugby regardless of their Heineken and Challenge Cup disappointments this season.

It is safe to assume that, with two weeks of solitary focus behind them, Tony McGahan's men will be at full tilt this evening, just as they were when willpower drove them to victory in their April meeting with Leinster at the same venue.

The problem is that, even if Leinster are at 75pc, the visitors still have the capacity to produce spells of rugby that can leave any team clutching at air and, in keeping with his selections all season, Joe Schmidt has picked a clever side for his last outing in a stunning debut season.

Gordon D'Arcy was not available to start in any case, but Fergus McFadden's selection at inside-centre provides him with the ideal opportunity to send out a powerful message to Ireland coach Declan Kidney as the clock ticks down to the World Cup.

Similarly, Shane Jennings is rewarded for his critical contributions to Leinster's victories in the semi-final and final of the Heineken Cup and if he manages to help effect superiority at the breakdown against Ireland's incumbent No 7, David Wallace, it will give Kidney further food for thought.

Heinke van der Merwe is of no use to Kidney, but, while the South African is not as dynamic as Cian Healy in the loose, he is an accomplished scrummager and his performance could provide an insight to John Hayes' capacity to play a role at New Zealand 2011.

McGahan has stuck with the side that ground its way past the Ospreys in the semi-final, which means Danny Barnes, the two-try hero that day, suddenly finds himself marking Brian O'Driscoll, the best centre of his generation.

Barnes and Lifeimi Mafi face a massive defensive test against the Leinster midfield and the tackles need to go in hard and, in Mafi's case, low enough to prevent yellow cards.

There is talent in the Munster backline, and the back-three play since the return of Felix Jones from injury has shown what can be done with the right combination of belief and attacking brio.

However, Schmidt is among the foremost backline innovators in the game and Munster do not have his coaching equivalent, making it harder to end the try-scoring famine that has hindered them in this fixture.

If Marcus Horan and Hayes can provide a steady scrum and Damien Varley takes advantage of Munster's extra height at line-out time, then it is game on.

The Final Trial element to the clash provides extra incentive for both teams and, if McFadden and Jennings will be bulling for Leinster, then it is safe to say Wallace, James Coughlan, Donnacha Ryan, Conor Murray and Jones will be equally ferocious for the hosts.

Then there is the Ronan O'Gara factor. The out-half will have watched Jonathan Sexton's tour de force in Cardiff with a wry smile for it used to be O'Gara doing the Roy Of the Rovers bit in the Heineken Cup (he was voted the best player of the first 15 years of the competition) and garnering the plaudits afterwards.

Predictions are hazardous in the extreme. Leinster are the better side, but face the greater mental challenge, Munster have last-chance-saloon intensity and a stronger bench, but not the capacity to cope if Schmidt's men hit battle speed.

Expect a furious contest, O'Gara and Coughlan to play key roles for the home side, along with McFadden and Jennings for the guests and very little in it come the final whistle, which may just herald a narrow Leinster win.

Of course, if Munster do manage it, the joke is on Leinster's fans as their red counterparts can revel in the glory of beating the best team in Europe. We'll see.

Verdict: Leinster

Irish Independent