Brent Pope: Sexton should be the derby difference as Leinster and Munster clash at the Aviva
A few years ago this was seen as the biggest game in Europe, a sea of red and blue flags and a run on every club for tickets.
And what memories we have: Ronan O’Gara jumping over the back fence at the Aviva Stadium, much to the delight of his ecstatic fans, then the likes of Brian O’Driscoll or Jonny Sexton breaking the hearts of the red army. It was the only game in town.
Much has changed in recent years, and this is no longer the top table of European rugby, but there is still nothing like a Munster v Leinster showdown to whet the rugby lovers’ appetites, and this game has added incentive.
Before Christmas, and finding themselves both out of Europe, both Munster coach Anthony Foley and his counterpart in Leinster Leo Cullen set their season’s stall out on a strong finish in the only competition that both the previous European champions were still left in, the Guinness Pro12.
Points-wise, Munster are more desperate than Leinster, but in reality both teams need the win. Fifty years of history almost dictates that with just a six-day turnaround and down to their fourth choice out-half, the brave men of Connacht will probably cough up vital points away to Ulster.
Munster and Leinster will know this and it will play its part when they collide tomorrow in the Aviva Stadium (5.30)
In essence, a win for Leinster could see them almost guarantee a home semi-final, while a loss for Munster and they could just about count themselves out of all contention, especially given that hunting teams like Glasgow will surely pick up easy bonus point wins against the hapless Italian outfits.
For Munster, last week’s win against Treviso was nothing more than a training exercise to boost their confidence, but at least they came through pretty much unscathed and will be boosted by the assimilation of some of their international stars.
Leinster, on the other hand, will want to bounce back from last week’s disappointing loss to Connacht and Cullen will look back on the last few minutes in Galway and wonder how they didn’t manage to scramble a last-minute win.
In the end, Connacht’s raw determination and better use of the conditions deservedly won them the tight but error-ridden encounter.
Leinster will want to improve considerably on their tactical kicking and set-piece game to take them past Munster. The form book for these matches can be thrown ‘out the window’ and this game, like in most others will probably come down to the smallest of margins.
It will also be a case of the returning internationals trying to get one over their Irish counterparts and the win will come down to who plays the smarter game. Leinster will have to weather a Munster storm, of that they can be sure and Munster’s way will be to start the game as Connacht did last week, namely with aggression and a vicious defence.
Jonny Sexton (if selected) obviously becomes a huge figure in this match as a lot of the other players cancel themselves out.
Last week, Leinster’s nine and ten were simply not used to the conditions that the Galway Sportsground threw at them.
With the wind at their backs in the second spell, Leinster should have been tucking the ball into the corners and then looking to their superior lineout to keep the heat on Connacht, instead of bisecting the Connacht back-three. Leinster often wasted territory by simply giving the ball back to Connacht so they could stick it up their jumpers and play down the clock.
Teams often just assume the wind is worth a certain number of points, but that is so often not the case, teams actually carry ball a lot easier into the wind and are comfortable doing that.
The wind can be a huge factor if you let it do its natural work, ie to carry the ball in the air for vast chunks of ground.
Leinster and Irish out-half Sexton is a master at moving opposition back-three around, he will know both the strengths and weaknesses of Ireland and Munster’s Simon Zebo, and don’t expect Sexton to drop it down the best counter-attacker in the land's throat.
Up front Jack McGrath will surely start and that should tighten up the scrum considerably.
The loose forward battle will be worth the price of admission alone as the likes of CJ Stander and Tommy O’Donnell will relish trying to break Leinster’s hearts around the fringes against what will be an all-international back-row from Leinster.
You can often be so wrong in predicting what will happen in these derby matches, as each side will have their purple patches, but just going on what happened in Thomond Park on December 27 and the returning Leinster aces like Sexton, McGrath, and others and you would have to think that Munster will need to start this game like a freight train, get early points on the board and then keep building.
Can they do it? Of course, as over the years they have often caught Leinster on the hop, but Munster will be particularly nervous about this one, knowing that a loss here will mean the end of a disappointing season and possibly an end to European qualification next year.
Sometimes those extra ‘bad’ nerves can work against you in trying to keep composure under pressure.
Composure will be needed to win this match.