Brent Pope: 'Munster vs Leinster is one of the biggest games in world rugby - but the gloss has been taken off it'
I got a call on Christmas night from a delighted Munster fan: ‘The best present ever Brent, two tickets to Thomond Park this Saturday’.
This annual game had sold out in record time and the opportunity to cheer your side on in what is perhaps the biggest post-Christmas rugby occasion anywhere in the world.
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But despite Thomond Park being jammed on Saturday, the game has lost some of its gloss over the years. Not through lack of desire or commitment from players and fans, and not because both teams are not desperate to claim the bragging rights, but because we will no longer get to see all the top Irish players on show, with many of Ireland's RWC players rested even for this one.
The head-to-head match-ups that we were once used to all over the park have sadly dissipated over the years.
Longer, drawn-out seasons, with more emphasis on player management protocols and a serious eye toward Europe and the upcoming Six Nations championship has meant that some of the top players simply cannot play in these games.
I get it – player welfare and the province’s overall ambitions for the season must come first, and you can’t put all your eggs in one basket anymore. But I still miss the good old days, and as one of Ireland’s first foreign players, I came to understand what it meant to win these annual derby matches.
I cannot forget the days commentating in the rickety RTE gantry, days when it was O Gara against Contepomi, Munster v Argentina, or O’Gara versus the young pretender that was Johnny Sexton.
O'Connell, Quinlan, Foley, Clohessy, Galwey and others in red, all lying in wait, lips smacking not for Christmas turkey leftovers, but for the arrival of the Leinster bus into Thomond Park.
It was an invitation into the Lions' lair by team-mates that shared an Irish jersey, days when friendships didn’t matter until after the final whistle.
Few teams escaped Thomond Park with a win, and if they did, then they deserved it.
But times have changed, not in the competitive nature of these games, but in what players are on show, and also Leinster’s perceived strength in depth, not just in Ireland but in a territory where Munster once reigned themselves – in Europe.
Leinster and Munster are both doing well in the PRO14, with Munster recently tightening their grip on Conference B with a gritty but well-deserved win in Galway, and Leinster are unbeaten in all competitions.
But attacking-wise, they go into this match in different spaces. Leinster have scored over 100 points both in Europe and domestic competitions in recent weeks, with a bucketful of tries, whereas Munster have lost a tough away match to Saracens and then secured a hard-fought win in Connacht.
The incentive for both coaches is big. Leo Cullen won’t want to lose for the first time this season and Johann van Grann's Munster would love to be the team that ends that run.
The one huge advantage Munster have is that Thomond Park is still a difficult place to win and Munster have an incredible home record.
The difference, however, between Leinster and other teams from Europe is that Leinster know what it takes to win in Limerick. Leo Cullen will still prime his team for the crowd, where every Munster tackle or half-break will be cheered from the rafters. The issue will be who plays?
There is some talk of the timely reappearance of former Leinster out-half Joey Carbery after a long lay-off with an ankle injury, and with Tyler Bleyendaal again injured, Munster need more options in the No 10 shirt than an impressive JJ Hanrahan, who can’t play every game. I don’t see Carbery starting this game, rather off the bench.
Leinster, on the other hand, have serious options in the same positions that Munster struggle to plug, even without captain Johnny Sexton. Sexton’s natural replacement at Leinster, and possibly Ireland for the start of the next Six Nations, depending on the fitness of Carbery and Sexton, is Ross Byrne and he may be rotated in for this match.
If not, he may just be replaced by Ciaran Frawley, or even his younger brother Harry. Frawley would be Cullen’s second option after Ross Byrne, given Harry Byrne’s inexperience, but it just shows that Leinster are blessed for choice in most positions.
The same applies to the back row and front row where, despite young flanker Jack O Donoghue’s good work in defence for Munster in recent games, Leinster have serious options from their back row conveyor belt.
Last year, Leinster and Irish flanker Dan Leavy had established himself as one of the best in the world, and sat comfortably with the likes of Sean O’Brien in the Leinster back row. Fingers crossed that Leavy makes it back at some stage in 2020, and by all accounts his rehabilitation work is going well.
In his absence, Leinster have simply rolled out another crop of astonishing young talent, through the likes of Max Deegan, Caelan Doris, Will Connors and Scott Penny just to mention a few.
Even last weekend's outstanding second row against Ulster, Josh Murphy, is a player that prefers to operate as a blindside flanker, such is Leinster’s depth of options in so many positions.
Munster at full strength and at home are a match for any team. It’s just that they may find it hard to replace like with like at the moment. Munster do have plenty of young talent coming through off the rank, especially in their back three, but they also need the experience that the likes of Conor Murray, Keith Earls, Andrew Conway, CJ Stander, Dave Kilcoyne and especially captain Peter O’Mahony, bring to the team.
Without some of these key figures and despite a huge crowd behind them, beating Leinster still is a very difficult task. You always want these games to be tight, memorable occasions and I have a gut feeling that this will again go down to the wire.
Who wants it most?