Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Time for Joey Carbery and Munster to show the strides they’ve made'
This always looked like a difficult fixture for Leinster and now the shadow of Johnny Sexton looms large over the RDS along with the spectre of Saracens.
The English team ended both of these provinces’ European ambitions for the season and now Leinster and Munster look to the PRO14 for solace.
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Both sides measure themselves by their Champions Cup performances, but in a strange way this domestic affair may well come to define their seasons.
For Leinster, there is a need to keep the flow of trophies into their cabinet going. The double-double is no longer, but back-to-back league titles would be is a decent return for a club considered the strongest in this competition by some distance.
As for Munster, this is about showing progress.
They may not admit it publicly, but another semi-final defeat would suggest a club operating at its ceiling and, with half of their coaching team heading for the exit doors when the campaign concludes, there is a need for some positive news.
It’s all on the line and Leinster’s captain and the reigning World Player of the Year will zip up his tracksuit and watch from the his stands as his back-ups at club and international level take centre stage.
After his antics at Thomond Park, where he appeared determined to put Joey Carbery back in his box, physically to the detriment of the team’s performance, he will surely find this an uncomfortable experience.
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Leo Cullen says he’s done his training, but the head coach has opted to select Ross Byrne as his starting out-half instead.
Perhaps the toll of a bruising 80 minutes against Saracens meant the out-half is would not be at his optimum performance levels, but the decision has worrying ramifications for the autumn when Joe Schmidt will need him to go back-to-back for three weeks if Ireland are to compete for the Webb Ellis trophy.
Step forward Carbery, who has played just 32 minutes since February 9 but makes a timely return to the RDS for the first time.
He started this fixture in blue, at full-back, last season and left for more opportunities to play out-half in order to enhance his prospects of challenging Sexton for the Ireland shirt.
It seemed almost fanciful at the time, but a year on the idea of a real rivalry in Japan is no longer far-fetched.
After his epic 2018, Sexton, 33, has come back to the pack dramatically since that damaging night in December and his position now looks more vulnerable than ever before.
Joe Schmidt and his coaching team will be tuning in with interest.
Not only is the battle of the back-ups fascinating, so too is the presence of CJ Stander at openside wing-forward as Johann van Graan goes full Springbok.
Eagle-eyed fans will have noted how the South African-born back-row packed down in that role for Ireland when he played with Jack Conan.
He has the physical attributes to do the job in tandem with breakdown threats Peter O’Mahony and Tadhg Beirne, but the lack of an out-and-out No 7 is a risk as Josh van der Flier comes in for Seán O’Brien – one of three centrally-contracted players left out of the match-day 23 entirely by Cullen, who has gone for a young and dynamic side.
O’Brien trained on Thursday but wasn’t ready to back up last week’s collision-fest, while Rob Kearney and Jack McGrath were left out despite being available.
Cullen is hoping the freshness of fit-again Van der Flier, skipper Rhys Ruddock, Dave Kearney and Byrne can inject life into his battered team.
A year ago, they played well for 50 minutes in similar circumstances and faded dramatically in the end as they clung on to a one-point lead. Munster pushed hard at the death but lacked the quality to get over the line.
A year on, they have lost Simon Zebo but gained Carbery, Tadhg Beirne and Arno Botha and at times this season they have looked a much better team.
But the defeat to Saracens and subsequent non-performance against Benetton Treviso have opened up a discussion on their progress, while the decision of Jerry Flannery and Felix Jones to walk has brought scrutiny on the whole operation.
A win tomorrow would be a major moment for Van Graan who is under real pressure despite signing a new contract.
In particular, the team’s attacking plan has been called into question but often the execution has been the issue. The return of Carbery and Keith Earls should help improve that facet.
Both returning backs will need to hit the ground running after a long absence, but they bring a huge amount of threat.
Munster will look to gain an advantage up front through their ball-carriers, while securing a good supply of ball from their set-piece which worked well in December.
They will get in Leinster’s faces and try and throw them off their game at the breakdown and if they can turn their defence into attack, they’ll have a real chance of winning.
Chris Farrell is a key figure. The centre’s size should help deal with the threat of Robbie Henshaw in defence, while his ball-carrying marks him out as an auxiliary auxillaryforward in the trenches.
His public comments about the team’s attack need to be backed up, but he has the hands to release the threats outside him.
From Leinster’s point of view, this is a chance to move on from last week’s damaging defeat to Saracens and they have the players to do damage.
Their tight five is retained en masse and they will hope to dominate a collection of players they know well, while their dynamic back-row will be tasked with keeping the pace of the game high and supplying quick ball.
Behind the scrum, Luke McGrath and Byrne will surely target Mike Haley who looked so shaky under the high ball against Sarries, while getting the ball into James Lowe and Jordan Larmour’s hands is a priority.
Henshaw and Garry Ringrose will be determined to have big games after disappointing finals.
Cullen’s bench selection is stronger than last week’s, but Munster have decent impact as well and JJ Hanrahan will hope to play a role after deservedly getting the nod ahead of Tyler Bleyendaal.
To beat Leinster at the RDS, Munster will need to play at a high tempo from the off and sustain it for 80 minutes.
The conditions will test their skill-sets and may play into the hands of the bigger beasts in the blue pack, but the visitors are no shrinking violets.
They’ve had two weeks to prepare while their opponents were putting their energies into preparing for and recovering from a European final and they have no shortage of motivation as they look to end an eight-year wait for a trophy.
Perhaps it is set up for Sexton to come off the bench and steer his side to Celtic Park, but he will be power-less until introduced.
With Carbery back at the helm, the men in red have the freshness and the desire to get across the line and earn a place in the final if they can nail their attacking execution and take their chances.