Wednesday 21 August 2019

Thomond braced for record crowd despite omission of star names

Sean O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
Sean O'Brien. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The two biggest clubs in Irish rugby will draw a record Guinness Pro12 attendance to Thomond Park this evening - even though some of their star players will be sitting out the derby.

Munster and Leinster are separated by a hair's breadth at the top of the table but the 26,200 supporters have been denied a fully legitimate contest as the IRFU's player management protocols demand that some players absent themselves from one festive fixture.

While Munster have made three changes to the side that lost in Leicester last weekend, Rassie Erasmus is still effectively putting out his strongest possible starting XV; Keith Earls, who has had a troublesome groin, has a valid excuse for missing out.

However, Leinster have also decided to retain their biggest names until they host their own festive derby, and less than a third of their starting XV are normally first-choice selections.

Their list of high-profile absentees is spearheaded by Jonathan Sexton, still sidelined by Leinster, who have agreed with national coach Joe Schmidt that the injury-plagued No 10 needed a festive breather.

The province are hopeful he will return when they entertain their own sell-out crowd on New Year's Eve against Ulster after making an astonishing 10 changes from the side that dismantled Northampton last weekend.

Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Garry Ringrose are among those forced to stay at home.

Munster hope to end a run of three successive defeats against their rivals - their last loss in the league was at the Aviva Stadium in October, when Leinster were relatively untroubled in a 25-14 success. Like Leinster, they are unbeaten in eight league matches, while their last defeat here was against today's opposition last year.

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Leinster have lost twice away from home to Irish teams in 2016 - and on both occasions, against Ulster and Connacht, they failed to score a try.

"Our fans will want to get out and about and let loose with a few pints in them and get behind us," says Munster lock Donnacha Ryan. "We've not had a good run of late against them so this is an opportunity for us to put that right."

Munster boast the best defence in the Pro 12. Something has to give. Sadly, the bragging rights will be somewhat diminished.

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