Munster are back at the RDS tonight to fulfil a fixture that must feel like a punishment ritual at this stage. Surely tonight is the night they change the record after an unprecedented run of six defeats on the trot.
Even Leinster’s decision to rest Cian Healy, Rónan Kelleher, James Tracy, Tadhg Furlong, Devin Toner, Rhys Ruddock, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan, Luke McGrath, Ross Byrne, Robbie Henshaw and Hugo Keenan while dealing with the absence of Jamison Gibson-Park, Johnny Sexton, Will Connors and a few others can’t persuade the bookies to offer anything less than a five-point spread in the home side’s favour.
If this rivalry has been unbalanced to the extent where a close-to-full-strength Munster team can’t land a blow on their neighbours then Irish rugby has problems.
Both teams are out to win this Rainbow Cup and will know that slipping up tonight will give them a mountain to climb.
For Johann van Graan and the visiting side, there is no tomorrow. Leinster have La Rochelle in next Sunday’s Heineken Champions Cup semi-final.
Leo Cullen is able to recall Garry Ringrose to captain the side, Caelan Doris is at No 8 after his three-month hiatus due to concussion. James Ryan is on the bench.
Even without the big names listed above, it’s a formidable team. Hooker Dan Sheehan is a frightening prospect, Harry Byrne goes up against Joey Carbery, Ryan Baird is unleashed from the start, Scott Penny was arguably the country’s in-form back-row before his recent hand injury and the back-three is laced with threat.
Munster, however, have the experience and one would expect them to be able to control this match.
That starts up front where the tight five must surely be smarting after the beating they took on their last visit to Ballsbridge, their back-row of Peter O’Mahony, Jack O’Donoghue and CJ Stander must be dominant.
Behind the scrum, they need to give Conor Murray and Carbery licence to play. Their centres endured an off-day in the PRO14 final but showed what they could do against Toulouse, and even without Andrew Conway their back-three is capable of causing problems.
In the absence of Keenan, they’ll go to the air to test Jordan Larmour but anything inaccurate will invite the Ireland speedster to counter.
With McGrath and Gibson-Park out, Hugh O’Sullivan starts at scrum-half and the 23-year-old is making his first start of the season. He’s expected to depart in June and his back-up is making his debut.
The visitors will target him and Byrne from the off.
Interestingly, Stander is the only one of Munster’s departing players in the squad and the bench has a youthful, energetic look to it with Gavin Coombes braced for impact and the sizeable Keynan Knox surely ready to step up.
Defence will have been a big focus of their pre-game build-up after they were let off the hook time and time again in the PRO14 final and were ripped to shreds by Toulouse.
If Van Graan’s post-match comments are anything to go by, Munster cannot afford to let Leinster get more than seven points in front.
Their discipline must be top notch, their set-piece on point, their accuracy with ball in hand at the highest level.
They’ve won just two of the last 15 derbies and haven’t beaten Leinster away since October 2014.
While forwards coach Graham Rowntree dismissed the idea that there is a mental block when it comes to this fixture, it is hard to escape the fact that the team in blue have a stranglehold.
Munster have been close in four of the last five games, but when it mattered most they came up well short. Even when they were in the ascendancy they found ways to lose.
Prop Ed Byrne believes the home side are not short of motivation.
“Having Munster in the first round of any competition is always going to be a big one and with six rounds we need to focus on winning every one of them,” he said. “We want to build momentum into the week after without setting our sights on that right at the minute, but people know that if they go well here it’s putting their hand up.
“Individually and collectively we need to make sure that we get everything right and that comes down to our preparation. You get your preparation right and hopefully then we’ll be building momentum into the weekend and further on.
“We saw what they did to Toulouse the week after (the final), how impressive they were, so we know how dangerous they are and how good they are 1-15, but even their backline in particular, they’ve some wonderful athletes there.
“We know they can create something from nothing and that’s the focus this week, that we’re not going to look back too much on that final and just focus I suppose on what they did after, scoring 33 points against a very good Toulouse team, that says a lot.”
Is this the day that Munster finally get one over on their rivals? If they do, they could potentially clear the way for a route to a trophy without having to travel to Dublin again.
At this stage, even the Rainbow Cup would do for a club starved of success and that desperation must surely feed into tonight’s performance.
They’d dearly love to have RG Snyman on board, but all of their other first-team players are available and rested, they’ve no game for two weeks after this and Warren Gatland’s Lions forwards coach Robin McBryde will be paying close attention from the sidelines.
If they can’t beat Leinster tonight, then when will the victory come?
For the fifth time since rugby’s lockdown ended, they go in search of that elusive derby win.
Tonight, they must demonstrate that they’ve learnt from their mistakes, that they are capable of discommoding the PRO14 champions, that they have the discipline, patience and aggression to disrupt this Leinster team’s flow.
Another defeat would be truly damaging.